The Crisis of the Western Mind

All the various crises of Late Modernity are but branches arising from one root crisis. The root crisis is a crisis of consciousness. The shared (but often unconscious) metaphysical foundations that together form the undercurrent of the Western worldview and structure of consciousness that Isaac Newton called “The Frame of the World” are in turmoil. And this has been so, at least, since Nietzsche’s “madman in the marketplace” announced the death of God, for “God” was the name given to unify and lend coherence to the ensemble of elements that comprised the metaphysical foundations of the Western structure of consciousness, as this structure’s assumed self-evident or axiomatic truths.

Before Nietzsche, however, the brilliant English Renaissance priest and poet John Donne (1572 – 1631) had already anticipated, two centuries prior to Nietzsche’s declaration, the incipience of the metaphysical crisis and the impending death of God in his great poem “An Anatomy of the World“, with its remarkably prescient lines,

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

From Donne to Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) over two centuries pass — 8 or 9 generations — which is an indication of just how conservative culture and thought really are, and how slow to change and to recognise itself and its true circumstances. Today, to a certain extent, the mass media — the technologies of communication and transportation — have changed much of this, since we are now on “fast forward” (as Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock described). Today, we live the permanent revolution in strange circumstances where even conservatives think of themselves as “revolutionaries” and espouse revolutionary doctrines of “creative destruction”.

This absurd self-contradiction in which conservative thought is wedded to notions of permanent revolution is a measure of the very same incoherence and fragmentation of the metaphysical foundations of the Western worldview that both Donne and Nietzsche recognised, for Donne’s death of the world soul is only the preface or overture to Nietzsche’s final announcement of the death of God. This was the implicit historical trajectory of the mental-rational structure of consciousness as described by Jean Gebser in his book The Ever-Present Origin, from its efficient (or effective) mode as “universal reason” to its present degraded state of functioning as “deficient” or defective “rationality”.

Nietzsche realised that the metaphysical foundations of the modern consciousness structure could no longer support it. To borrow a meme from Karl Marx, the infrastructure could no longer support the superstructure and were in historical contradiction. The structure of consciousness, the “Frame of the World”, now existed in a condition of profound self-contradiction that could only end tragically — in self-negation, which is nihilism. The intuitive recognition of this state of self-contradiction is what informed Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as discussed in earlier posts. The narrative trajectory and dénouement of Stevenson’s tale — the mutual destruction of Jekyll and Hyde — corresponds precisely to Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism — “all higher values devalue themselves” — and he forecast “two centuries of nihilism” as having become an unavoidable and inexorable fate for the Modern Era. Incipit tragoedia, he wrote towards the end of The Gay Science. “The tragedy begins….” (die Tragödie beginnt….) are the very last words of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, words penned even as the most shockingly destructive forces and ideologies the world has ever witnessed were assembling on the temporal horizons of the Modern epoch, bearing witness to the sunset and twilight of the Age of Reason.

Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God no more “caused” nihilism and the Western crisis of consciousness and values than post-modernism “caused” the decadence of Late Modernity. As usual, it’s a case of shooting the messenger, or of “playing the man and not the ball”, as they say. The vulgar-minded have tended to make of Nietzsche something he was not implicitly, for before Nietzsche was Donne and Blake, and they, too, saw the necessary trajectory that the dynamics of the Age of Reason would follow. That implicit dynamic simply became self-conscious in the thinker called “Friedrich Nietzsche”, just as post-modernism is only the self-consciousness of an era that has now already run its course and has exceeded its shelf-life and its sell-by date. War is the way human beings have chosen to bring terminally ill eras to a conclusion, and that is what the whole destructive period from 1914 to 1945 represents. We just don’t live within the temporal and metaphysical horizons of the Modern Era any longer, although thought is often very late in catching up with the new reality.

Nietzsche’s concern was the self-overcoming of this nihilism. But he also realised that the only way out was through, much like Dante’s journey through the Inferno. This is where Nietzsche’s thaumaturgical philosophy resembles alchemy. We must pass through the crucible. We must find the spiritual strength to endure the hammer-blows because, while we might feel with each blow the imprint of a diabolic, nihilistic power upon our souls, it is only the work of the Jeweller, the transmutation of our leaden natures into the gold of the transhuman. In Nietzsche, the “bridge” to the overman is this crucible.

This is the principle of “creative destruction” that some interpreters have claimed to glean from Nietzsche (the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, for example, who influenced the neo-cons), but who typically misapply it merely to justify their own ideologies or their pet economic theories, etc, but who, like the “chickenhawks” in the neo-conservative movement and the Bush administration, actually refuse to cross over the bridge themselves, endure the crucible, or suffer the hammer-blows that others must learn to bear upon their souls and bodies themselves. This is typical of the reactionary mentality.

But what is this Nietzschean doctrine of bearing the hammer-blows of our fate except a re-interpretation of the long-suffering faith of Jesus? “Resist not evil”. That is Nietzsche’s true faith — that the only way out is through and to bear it cheerfully for the sake of the future overhuman and the resurrected integrity of the Earth. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all of Nietzsche is a revaluation or transvaluation of the Christian message — his attempt to recover and re-establish, on a new basis, what we might call “the Lost Gospel of Jesus”.

Two extracts from his Will to Power should give occasion to pause and reconsider Nietzsche’s purposes and projects. I’ll cite both of them here to demonstrate why Nietzsche is so often mistaken for what he is not,

“One should not confuse Christianity as a historical reality with that one root thatits name calls to mind: the other roots from which it has grown up have been far more powerful. It is an unexampled misuse of words when such manifestations of decay and abortions as ‘Christian church,’ ‘Christian faith’ and ‘Christian life’ label themselves with that holy name. What did Christ deny? Everything that is today called Christian”  (158)
“The entire Christian teaching as to what shall be believed, the entire Christian ‘truth,’ is idle falsehood and deception: and precisely the opposite of what inspired the Christian movement in the beginning…. Precisely that which is Christian in the ecclesiastical sense is anti-Christian in essence: things and people instead of symbols; history instead of eternal facts; forms, rites, dogmas instead of a way of life. Utter indifference to dogmas, cults, priests, church, theology is Christian….” (159)

Not exactly the words one would expect to hear from the mouth of the great “Anti-Christ”.

“I have also The Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no,” William Blake wrote in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And it is this “Bible of Hell” that the great “Anti-Christ”, Nietzsche, actually delivers. The meaning of this “Bible” Blake explains in “The Voice of the Devil”,

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:
     1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
     2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
     3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True:
     1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
     2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outer circumference of Energy.
     3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

To that extent, then, Nietzsche and Blake are engaged in a common enterprise, and Nietzsche’s “aristocratic radicalism” resembles Blake’s “spiritual radicalism” for that reason. What Blake promised, Nietzsche delivered. And it is certainly ironic that, in Blake (and, as it turns out, in Nietzsche too) the legacy of Jesus is actually defended by the “devils” against the distortions and perversities of the “angels”.

But then, who does the Bible say is “the wisest of all creatures”? It is the serpent. Homo sapiens, despite flattering himself that he is the wisest of all creatures, isn’t even considered a runner-up in the spiritual order of things.

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12 responses to “The Crisis of the Western Mind”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    By the way… there is an excellent book by Edwin A. Burtt entitled The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science that, in broader terms, should be taken as an investigation of the metaphysical foundations of the mental-rational structure of consciousness generally. As good fortune would have it, a copy of Burtt’s treatise is available online at http://ia700303.us.archive.org/29/items/metaphysicalfoun00burtuoft/metaphysicalfoun00burtuoft.pdf

    The trick here, of course, is to relate Burtt’s investigation to Blake and Nietzsche and ultimately to the meaning of Jean Gebser. But it is worthwhile in the sense that these “metaphysical foundations” are what constitutes the shared assumptions of the culture generally, and not just of the specialist activity called “science”. They refer to the underpinnings or undercurrents of the mental-rational structure of consciousness (in Gebser’s terms) more generally, and thus of the Modern Era and the Modern Mind itself. So, read it as being your own autobiography, to a certain extent.

    While Burtt’s analysis is excellent, it needs to be born in mind that this “metaphysical foundation” is exactly what has become unstable and which is, in fact, the meaning of Nietzsche’s “death of God”. One of the implications of the “death of God” is that it casts doubt on whether a unified understanding and knowledge (consciousness) that was the project of the Modern Era is at all possible (at least, given the present state of reason), for “God” represented that ideal of integral or perfected (i.e, “universal”) knowledge or understanding. This ideal is what underlies, for example, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis.

    It is interesting that Rosenstock-Huessy’s principal work Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man invokes the belief that we have been shaped and framed by our metaphysics. I have not yet tried to draw any parallels between Burtt’s views of the matter and Rosenstock-Huessy’s, but that is a project I intend to undertake in the near future.

  2. amothman33 says :

    Neitzche is anti-christian, not anti-christ, in actuality he aspires to be bring about the real representation of christ.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    From among the ever present gems on Chrysalis:

    “That implicit dynamic [the trajectory of the Age of Reason] simply became self-conscious in the thinker called “Friedrich Nietzsche”, just as post-modernism is only the self-consciousness of an era that has now already run its course and has exceeded its shelf-life and its sell-by date.”

    That’s truly who we are, it seems to me: the embodiment of the dreams and wishes of the universe, as Neville Goddard also described it so beautifully in this next excerpt:

    “In each one of us God the Father awakes, for He is one, not two. It is Christ who is dreaming and it is Christ who awakens in this gentleman and this lady, in that gentleman and that lady, as the one Father. He awakens as the one who begot the dream. Therefore there is only one body, one Spirit, One Lord, one God and Father of all. So you see: this fourfold vision is within the experience of all.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Two issues are involved here — one of agency and one of milieu (or environment, but I prefer the word ‘milieu’ to embrace both the natural and the mental — or social/cultural — environment). The milieu is, in most cases, what Marshall McLuhan referred to as “the invisible environment” in that we are not really conscious of our real Umwelt. As McLuhan put it, we are alway living in “the rear view mirror”. In a sense, that’s encoded in the very word “thought” — we “take thought”, but thought is the past tense of think. The mirror is reflection and is speculative thought (or the Latin word speculum means ‘mirror’) and is related to the word “spectre” — the ghost in the machine, as it were. Hence McLuhan’s quip about living life through the rear-view mirror is actually quite a brilliant quip about thinking as reflection. He is making the same observation about the narcissism of reflective or speculative thought as Blake did in his complaints about Locke, Newton, etc. Buddhism calls this mind, “the monkey mind”.

      This is why you find that one of the most important steps in transcending the narcissistic condition is the deliberate suspension of the thought process. In Castaneda, this was referred to as “stopping the world”; in Buddhism, it is called “stopping the wheel of space and time”; and one of the most recent engaging statements about this was Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, or Bolte-Taylor’s interesting My Stroke of Insight in which she describes the effects of having a rare type of stroke that paralysed the thought and language centres of her brain (all the more interesting because she is a neurologist). Stopping the World is stopping the monkey mind. When we cease to live through the “rear-view mirror”, we have achieved “Presence” or what is called “Now”… we aren’t living our lives through the mirror of the past.

      Don Juan put it to Castaneda in very elegant terms when he remarked that the continuous recreation of the foreign installation (we’ll call it that) happens because we “wake up in the morning telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like. And we go to bed at night telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like”. The true self can’t get a word in edgewise, as it were. So, the whole point of meditation and concentration is to stop the monkey mind, and that’s actually a lot more difficult than it appears. Zen uses the koan approach, which has much the same effect.

      This is, I suspect, what occurred to Nietzsche when he experienced his “stare into the abyss”, for that is somewhat akin to the words Goddard uses to end his lectures: “Now let us enter into the silence” — that is, stop the monkey mind. Buddhism calls this state ’empty mirror’.

      You see how the theme of ‘mirror” keeps recurring? That is because it is the narcissistic condition. Other terms, equally suggestive, are “windmills of your mind” or the image of the merry-go-round of constant busy mentation. Those are also ‘monkey mind’.

      But…. what is interesting about this is what it says about “the invisible environment”, which is invisible precisely because we aren’t present to our reality while we live through the rear-view mirror. This is the reactionary mind, in effect, in its extreme expression. It does not recognise the real. Apocalypse, which is revelation or unveiling, is the shock of the real. But some people can’t face the shock of the real. They are the ‘deniers’. Nietzsche faced and shouldered the shock of the real, which was his ‘stare into the abyss’.

      With that, Nietzsche entered into a new ‘milieu’, a new psychic environment, and much of his Ecce Homo is about this crossing a threshold, in some ways. This allowed Nietzsche to gain a great degree of psychic distance from his old self, and enabled him to view thinking as an objective process. This is the transcendental attitude, in effect. But (a big BUT), he didn’t necessarily recognise the new milieu he was in, for it had now become the new ‘invisible environment’, you see. He was in the future looking back at modernity. This is why people consider Nietzsche the first real ‘post-modernist’. He himself called himself ‘post-humous man’, arriving too early for his times. He became, in effect, the agency for a future not yet actualised, while living in a society that still lived through the rear view mirror.

      But enough of that. More could be said, but not in a comment.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Just occurred to me how we could differentiate the meanings of “environment” and the wonderful word “milieu”. Milieu has much the sense of the old meaning “in Him we live, move, and have our being”, which expresses the sense of God as Seth’s “All That Is”. Yet, for many this is “the invisible environment” and not the conscious milieu. I haven’t read it, but I suspect Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Milieu Divin expresses something of this omnipresence of the divine.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          I was reading through the link you posted to the article in Aeon Magazine. After I finished reading the article, I asked myself if someone now asked me what God meant to me in light of these new discoveries what answer would I give? Then, I answered myself that I would say: ‘To me, God represents the meaning in all things.’ And I think that would be in line with Seth’s “All That Is” and also the “conscious milieu” in which all things are emobodiment of meaning and purpose.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        “When we cease to live through the “rear-view mirror”, we have achieved “Presence” or what is called “Now”… we aren’t living our lives through the mirror of the past.”

        In other words, it seems what we are now doing is living inside of a photograph.

        I also found using an onion as an analogy can help me understand this. The innermost layer of the onion is the layer formed most recently. Just as Framework 2 (the innermost layer of conscioussness) should represent the present and the now and the ever present origin without which the onion itself would cease to be. And the outermost layer of an onion (Framework 1) represents what was once part of the inner layers of the onion (the realm of Framework 2). I also saw a documentary on the sun last summer. I learned from the documentary that it takes the photons created inside the center of the sun 100,000 years before they can reach the surface of the sun. This being due to the nature of the sun’s plasma. So, we are surrounded with three dimensional reality which although it may seem as the present but it’s really the past “pushed out.” As Neville Goddard also said: “One day he will come to his senses and realize that the world is but himself pushed out.”

        • Scott Preston says :

          I also found using an onion as an analogy can help me understand this

          That’s brilliant! I never thought of that, although the Beatle’s (Lennon’s) “look inside a glass onion” came occasionally to mind as an image of Gebser’s “diaphaneity” or transparency. Is there such a thing as a glass onion anyway?

    • Scott Preston says :

      By the way (and speaking of Castaneda) you may have read the ecstatic exclamation of don Juan about there being “no end of worlds for our vision!”

      Well… here’s something about that, potentially…

      http://www.aeonmagazine.com/nature-and-cosmos/michael-hanlon-multiverse/

      • tony says :

        “If all potentialities (probabilities) are actualised simultaneously across all probable worlds, then the agency for this must be consciousness itself.”

        Yes, strange that the author of the multiverse article should be so engaged with the current range of theories on the nature of reality, and miss out on the blindingly obvious…

        • Scott Preston says :

          Oh… you read my little comment to the article in Aeon. Touches on something I just posted to The Chrysalis on “omnishambles”, about the need of the mental-rational consciousness structure to basically deny itself and the relevance of subjectivity and even its own subjectivity. As such, it remains ‘the undiscovered country’. It’s absurd, actually — the contortions of logic that are engaged in to avoid “subjective factors” (until quantum physics, that is). Yet, it is our primary reality. “Fundamentally, we experience only ourselves” is how Nietzsche once expressed it. Yet, this is completely contrary to the conventional wisdom.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    Thank you, Sir, for the compliment 🙂

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