Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Measure of Success

A friend recently loaned me a four-part BBC documentary called "The Century of the Self", which I recommend highly to everyone. It deals with the ways in which the theories of Sigmund Freud, through his relatives, permeated every aspect of modern economic and political life. His American nephew, for instance, Edward Burnays, invented the discipline of public relations, and almost single-handedly created the modern 'consumer society', convincing businesses that they could increase their profits by preying on the subconscious desires of consumers, rather than simply appealing to rational arguments for the usefulness of their product. The last installment was of particular relevance for us today, talking about how Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain used business techniques of 'lifestyle marketing' and focus groups to tailor a message that they knew voters wanted to hear, undermining the traditional values of their respective parties in the process.

All of this talk about Freudian theory, with its emphasis on the irrational desires which drive human behaviour in the subconscious, and our rational conscious minds bobbing along on top like a cork on the ocean got me to thinking. I put it together especially with my favourite Herman Melville quote: "Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes." (Moby Dick, Chapter 26) All great human thought has recognized this dichotomy within us. This is the crux of Paul's discussion in Romans 7 about the law of his flesh, warring against the law of his mind. It is the distinction between the various chakras in Indian thought. It is the tension between ren and wu in Confucianism, between matter and spirit in Manichaeism, between ignorance and knowledge in Gnosticism. It is the basis of the Islamic notion of 'Greater Jihad', the struggle against the base elements of oneself. And, of course, it is the struggle of the id with the ego and super-ego.

The implications of this idea go well beyond the psychological and the spiritual, however. It is of the utmost importance for political thought. After all of these centuries, three basic schools have developed, which I would classify as Left, Right, and Centre. (Note to my American readers: these are not Left, Right, and Centre as you are wont to understand them in your politics. American Left, Right, and Centre are in fact all Centre. My examples will help you to understand what I mean.) 

In the Left camp, among other doctrines, we find Communism, Islam, and Gnosticism. These Left ideologies hold that each man has it within him to overcome the base elements of himself and to become a superior form of human being. So the Russian communists were fond of speaking of the 'New Soviet Man', who would overcome our greed, our avarice, our fear, and our degeneracy. He (and the 'New Soviet Woman') would be the result of children well-educated and raised in a just and equitable society, which would reinforce their better natures while enlightening them in ways which would overcome the evils of our irrational instincts. The good Muslim is meant, likewise, to be reformed by adherence to Islamic law, and to internalize its precepts in order, through submission to God (and with His aid), to triumph in his 'Greater Jihad' against his animal nature. The emphasis in both cases being that, with effort and support, every human being can make the transition.

The philosophies of the Right, including Romantic Nationalism, most sects of Christianity, and some varieties of Neo-Platonism, have a very different focus. They do not believe that most people are capable of this 'self-overcoming'. They are simply too mired in their animal natures to achieve that degree of enlightenment. Their only hope, therefore, is to identify themselves with something larger and nobler than themselves, and attempt to model themselves as closely as possible to that exemplar. In Romatic Nationalism, for instance, the greatest individuals in the history of the nation, along with the distinctive language and customs of the people in question, are used to create an ideal form of a member of that nation. There is, as it were, an ideal of German-ness, Slovak-ness, Chinese-ness that exists in the Platonic realm. The form of the ideal German who sits at the ideal desk on the ideal chair, if you will. Every individual German, although never able to become something so noble themselves, can make the effort to reflect that ideal to the greatest extent that they can, and so partake in its nobility. Likewise, in most forms of Christianity, we are all sinners incapable of deserving salvation on our own. Only by internalizing God, and taking up our crosses to follow Jesus, can we receive the Grace which redeems us. We have here "The Imitation of the Christ" in much the same way as we had the imitation of the ideal German. Those who doubt that this is a central tenet of Western Christianity may review the dispute between St. Augustine and Pelagius, in which Pelagius argued that the works of men could earn them title to salvation, while Augustine responded that men could be saved only by the Grace of God, and no action they took could possibly deserve that. Augustine won, and Pelagius was declared a heretic.

Lastly, there is the Centre position, which is held by Secular Humanism, Classical Liberalism, and modern Capitalist Democracy. In this school of thought, men are dominated by base irrational instincts, and we should all just get over it. Men cannot be made better either through education and personal enlightenment, or through the effort to reflect nobler ideals; the best we can hope for is to harness the baseness of mankind for practical benefit. So it is that, in the United States, James Madison (writing as Publius) urged the orchestration of government to harness the evils of faction, rather than trying to suppress them. (Federalist #10) Likewise, the US has, throughout its history, championed an economic order based on 'enlightened self-interest', and the harnessing of greed as a means to increase productivity, rather than attempting to reform individuals to make them fit for a less greedy system (a la the New Soviet Man).

I do not know which of these philosophies is the most accurate description of the reality of the mass of mankind, which troubled me for sometime. However, I have come to realize from this the true import of what people say about knowing what your definition of success is. I have always felt hemmed in by the darkness which lurks in my own soul, and the souls of my neighbours. I have watched so many otherwise good people be driven by their irrational subconscious desires into substance abuse, abusive relationships, and mountains of debt which ultimately claimed the precious hours of their lives, one by one. These things weigh on me heavily. I cannot, obviously, consent to that Centre position, which bids me simply accept this darkness as a fact of life, and be content with that little bobbing cork of consciousness, as with the feeble flickering of matchheads in the night. The Right position is much better, but it is still not enough for me to fix my attention on a lantern, trying to hold at bay the thought of the darkness which still hems me in if I move my eyes from that one magical point. No, I refuse to give the dignity of the title 'success' to anything short of throwing on the light switch, and beaming that sweet illumination into every corner of our being. As long as I live, it must be my mission to chase that darkness out of each of us entirely. Perhaps it is not realistic, but nothing less will do. I don't have all the answers, and I know that many good men and women of intelligence will choose to sit in the Centre with their matches, or to crowd around the lantern on the Right. As for me, however, I will always be found on the Left, fumbling for the switch.

1 comment:

hetters said...

What beautiful pictures you are capable of painting with your words, my friend.