Peering forward to the unknown abyss of modernity’s great unraveling — the instability of industrial civilization and its 7 billion inhabitants — invokes feelings of anguish. So apparent is the trajectory of global civilization, so obvious and clear, that we need not invest more energy outlining our inexorable demise. The time has come for all you compassionate observers to honestly confront the darkness of which so much is written. So, I say, waste no more intellect critiquing the benighted ultra-rich who we hear so much about, those contemptible faces of capitalism, and commit your efforts to the ultimate task at hand: your moral responsibility in the age of profound insanity.
Virtue: the Lost Discourse
The value imparted to us by those wise ancient thinkers, from the fragments of Parmenides and Empedicles to the mysteries of Pythagoras and later Socrates to the Eastern philosophy of Buddhism, can be functionally oversimplified the following way.
Human beings are endowed with the innate capacity of altruism. We are mortal beings moving through the vast cosmos of cyclical nature, furnished with a capacity to discern, by employing the faculty of reason, the difference between right and wrong. Those who commit their actions to the good we call virtuous.
The nature of virtue, although difficult to describe holistically, can be understood by examining its separate components, namely (in Greek literature), wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. These are the qualities that make a man or women virtuous, and only the free will intrinsic to consciousness (or soul or spirit) has the power to ascertain the righteous course of action.
Endowed with virtue and decorated with knowledge, the sacred responsibility of human agency rests in the hands of its masters: yourselves. The whole world around you is mad indeed, and the social system into which you were unwillingly introduced stimulates compulsive consumption and narcissism; but this bears no impact on moral autonomy.
This, we can safely deduce, was the value of Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality. We are masters of our own destiny, dancing within a divine order; and this compels one to consider moral responsibility, no matter how chaotic our surroundings may be.
The relevance of this is staggering. So much we hear about the exploits of capitalism and the folly of governments. Volumes of books and endless streams of articles pour into our awareness daily. It can be rather overwhelming. But what good is it, really?
It becomes too much to bear. And we become jaded by the influx of perpetually negative media. This does not arouse the soul within; instead of fueling the spirit with a sentient potency that transforms weathered bodies and fogged minds, that invigorates the intellect with pure knowledge and existential relevance, we digress, become depressed, and lose that most valuable constituent of spirituality: hope.
Vaclav Havel wrote:
“Hope is a dimension of the spirit. It is not outside us but within us. ….The more I think about it, the more I incline to the opinion that the most important thing of all is not to lose hope and faith in life itself. This doesn’t mean closing one’s eyes to the horrors of the world–quite the contrary, in fact.”
I hold tremendous respect for the analytics of contemporary liberalism — Sheldon Wolin’s concept of inverted totalitarianism, Noam Chomsky’s critique of empire, Norman Finkelstein’s rigorous dissection of Israeli state crimes, and so on. And I say this with extreme caution and will choose my words with care: what in all seriousness can we — the small categorical minority of committed activist and hyper-aware intellectuals — gain from more intricate criticisms of elite ideological proclivities? The world has run amok, this much is clear. But where do we, as morally autonomous beings, assimilate into their analyses? Do we simply just keep attending those anomalous protests and, in doings so, contend to embody the solution as the “99 percent”?
Krishnamurti, the great spiritual philosopher of the 20th century, lays it out clearly:
“Most of us want to see a radical transformation in the social structure. And if there is a social revolution, that is in action with regard to the outer structure of man, however radical that social revolution may be its very nature is static if there is no inward revolution of the individual, no psychological transformation. Therefore to bring about a society that is not repetitive, nor static, not disintegrating, a society that is constantly alive, it is imperative that there should be a revolution in the psychological structure of the individual, for without inward, psychological revolution, mere transformation of the outer has very little significance.”
Chris Hedges, whose writing I admire deeply, warns us about the sad state of climate destabilization, yet eats factory farmed meat, the second largest climate culprit which pollutes more greenhouse gases than all transportation combined. He admits his indefensible involvement within this charade we call capitalism, but where is he challenged for such unambiguous hypocrisy? The radical revolution about which he so elegantly writes, even if it was carried out overnight, would be rendered futile if we all behave like Mr. Hedges.
Noam Chomsky is quoted as much as the Bible, apparently, and is heard all over the world and is highly respected. And I say this with careful reverence: where can be found the wisdom of personal virtue that the world desperately needs to consider? The solution so easily described by our Greek ancestors, or most other serious moral philosophy, is skewed and blurred when collective responsibility is temporally placed on the super rich, as if our participation bears no impact.
We have been robbed of all effective tools of intellectual inquiry — blinded by the powers of institutional authority. Chomsky, dodging a question concerning conspiracy and class power, establishes what he thinks is the only way to establish a serious hypothesis:
“What you do is write articles for scientific journals, give talks at professional societies, go to the engineering department at MIT, or wherever you are, and present your results. And then proceed to try to convince the national academies, the professional society of physicists and civil engineers, the departments in the major universities, and try to convince them you’ve discovered something.”
The only effective route to uncovering the politically controversial is through submission to the highest echelons of our corrupt and broken system? The very system that is polluting our minds with nonsense? This seems to me a proliferation of the very ignorance we are supposed to be fighting.
Mad folly and super-inflated egos: confusion haunts our collective discourse. We no longer grapple with the concept of death and eternity: atemporal contemplation and philosophical curiosity. Institutional hubris has infected every element of existence like a pathogen, drowning out, with the roaring noise of industry, the wise and virtuous.
To openly question those who are deemed our brightest and sharpest thinkers leads only to more conflict and thus more social malaise. Universities fill the vessels of youth with mind numbing information, the kind that suppresses inquisitiveness and spiritual growth; media outlets seem to be a kind of sick joke, impersonating reality with blind contempt; protests are violently repressed; government is buying up billions of rounds of ammunition; chainlink camps are being created in preparation for social instability; Fukushima continues to enlarge its isotopic bloom that is progressing towards North America; nature’s unleashed cataclysmic energy eviscerates human infrastructure with ease; and population growth refuses to mitigate its multiplicity.
This much, again, is abundantly clear. But what is your involvement within this dark carnival of death? What is within your power to revolutionize reality and ensure a future of serene perfection? For this we must invoke the powerful phantom of Parmenides.
Lenny Bruce said:
“Let me tell you the truth. The truth is what is. And what should be is a terrible, terrible lie that they gave the people long ago.”
Planet Earth has endured many great extinctions. In hindsight, the evolution of this planet to bring about the organic complexity of human intelligence couldn’t have been any other way. Nature seems, to the spiritual observers and to the ancients, to contain a universal intelligence.
Western science is just now beginning this exigent examination of the nature of universe. The results have yielded frustration among materialists, who would prefer a simple step by step formula for uncovering the fundamental problems of consciousness. The sophistication of our technological ingenuity begets only more unanswered questions, like how many dimensions of reality truly exist. We procure grand interpretations of quantum mechanics and puzzle at the violation of all material laws of antiquity; multiverse theory, string theory, quantum neural consciousness, quantum field theory, entanglement, and so on. But these theoretical structures represent a mirage; nature’s disillusionment of thought-bearing assumptions.
Thus, the ultimate manifestation of what is can be described by Empidelcles, who wrote about this necessary disenchantment of mortal reality: Nothing ceases to be, nor is created to be. The universal evolution of nature consists of an eternal mixing and unmixing, bound up in the perpetual conflict of yin and yang, or, in his words, “Love and Hate.”
This rather simple yet far reaching observation — of the ebb and flow of nature’s perfection — gave rise to the philosophy of truth that fueled the Socratic dialectic of reasonable moral judgement, was later degraded and spiritually amputated by Plato, and just trickled down to the instrumental rationality of Aristotle. Such philosophy to the ancients, from our Western ancestors to Shamanism to Eastern Mysticism, was held with supreme importance to the understanding of “I” and “ALL” and to the perceptible reality they inhabit.
Parmenides is heeded, even today, as the most important pre-Socratic philosopher of the ancient world. He is probably the most misinterpreted philosopher to have occupied the minds of contemporary thinkers, and his fragments have barely made it down to us today.
To initiate the reader to the comprehensible nature of truth and intelligibility, he states:
“Listen and I will instruct thee — and thou, when thou hearest, shalt ponder –
What are the sole two paths of research that are open to thinking.
One path is: That being doth be, and Non-Being is not.
This is the way of conviction, for Truth follows hard in her footsteps.
The other path is: That Being is not, and Not-Being must be;
This one, I tell thee in truth, is an all incredible pathway,
For thou canst never know what is not (for non can conceive it),
Nor canst thou give it expression, for one thing are thinking and being.”
“….That Being doth be — and on it there are tokens,
many and many to show that what is is birthless and deathless,
Whole and only-begotten, and moveless and ever-enduring:
Never it was or shall be; but the ALL simultaneously now is,
One contiguous one.”
He opens the reader’s mind to the concept of eternity and universal oneness. It is an explanation, in words, of meditation (an art he was said to have mastered), and can shed light onto the nature of our current human predicament, if one puts his or her mind to it.
We see the same articulation in the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”:
“All phenomena are naturally uncreated, they neither abide nor cease, neither come nor go.
They are without objective referent, signless, ineffable, and free from thought.
The time has come for the truth to be realised!”
All this, to the untethered soul, seems perplexing. But it is, at its roots, a primordial feeling we all carry within. Once recognized, this intransigent state produces a sense of love and compassion — a weight lifted off the shoulders of mortal confusion, a genuine liberation of consciousness.
The ancients elucidated life as the supreme manifestation of beauty. At times life can appear, to our physical perceptions, ugly, depressing, and vacuous. But this, according to the ancients, is merely that same illusion disseminating itself through the conditioning forces of Hate. “Nothing must needs not be; these things I enjoin thee to ponder. Foremost of all, withdraw thy mind from this path of inquiry.” wrote Parmenides. Everything that is, which always is, is “perfect” and that is why industrial civilization is bearing towards collapse — because it has to. And it couldn’t be, from beginningless time until now, any other way. The word “cosmos” in Greek literally means “well-ordered.” It is the juxtaposition of chaos.
And as Socrates so clearly articulates in the Apology, words that do not easily assimilate into the ontological machinery of Western existence, but should be deeply considered as we barrel forward to the great unknown:
“The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. …You too, gentleman of the jury, must look forward to death with confidence, and fix your minds on this one belief, which is certain: that nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death, and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the gods. …For my own part I bear no grudge at all against those who condemned me and accused me, although it was not with this kind intention that they did so, but because they thought that they were hurting me; and that is culpable of them. However, I ask them to grant me one favor. When my two sons grow up, gentlemen, if you think that they are putting money or anything else before goodness, take your revenge by plaguing them as I plagued you; and if they fancy themselves for no reason, you must scold them just as I scolded you for neglecting the important things and thinking that they are good for something when they are good for nothing.”
The suffering born of darkness, through which the human species is now propelled, will open up the grand doors of Justice, restoring a resonant harmony that corrects the old and fortifies the new, that paves alternative possibilities for social and spiritual liberty and that shatters the amoral nature of systemic structures like capitalism. And once the smoke is settled and fate unfolded, a new consciousness will have arisen. A consciousness that sees the ALL as “I” and the “I” as ALL. A consciousness that does not condemn the past (for condemnation is the enemy of understanding), but understands it.
So, I say, with all this in mind, that the posterity of activism will be the following: to unite the intellect with the sentient power of spiritual integrity, to be unambiguous about our own behavior and culpability, and to refine our fragmented minds to capitulate to the great mysteries of existence, the great curiosities of life. In doings so, desire dwindles and humility reigns; the impulse to stimulate the mortal senses retreats in isolation as the grand intelligibility of nature, what Parmenides calls the tokens of life, thrusts one’s fate up the ladder of virtue and righteousness toward the humble abode of moral purification. The cultivation of widespread artistic creation unseen since the renaissance will emerge. I trust that you too will walk there with me.
Tristan A. Shaw is a young writer residing off the West coast of Canada. He invites constructive communication at firstname.lastname@example.org.