The Disease of Righteousness
‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.’ — Wm. Blake
‘Expect poison from the standing water.’ — Wm. Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”
My post this morning is a further elaboration on a reply I made to a comment posted by LittleBigMan, which he published this morning in response to an earlier essay in The Chrysalis entitled “Post-Enlightenment An Epidemic of the Crazies”. While the themes presented in my reply are still fresh in my mind — and while the spirit is willing and the coffee is perking — I thought I would take the opportunity to develop those themes further. So the basis for this post lies in the comments I made there.
My central theme here is our “withering from within”. You may call this “decadence” if you like, although that word has been either so trivialised — or so overwrought — that it now fails to convey very much meaning as an aspect and facet of our contemporary nihilism. When eating chocolate or indulging in pie with whipped cream is taken as being “decadent” (thanks to the trivialising thrust of commercial advertising) one begins to doubt whether reliance on the common idiom is at all adequate to overcome the levelling tide of trivialisation and superficiality in order to make oneself understood. Here, too, in this trivialising tendency, Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism applies — “all higher values devalue themselves”, and words and names are emptied of all meaningful content by a ubiquitous propaganda of trivialisation and banality which attends the creeping infantilisation of popular opinion and the “democratic deficit”.
Something of this fracturing and atomisation of meaning is expressed in Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement that philosophy is “dead” because,
“Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”
This scientism, however, is more than a bit specious — and more than a little self-righteous, too — because not even science can keep up with developments in science. Physicists not only rarely talk to biologists, and vice versa, or biologists to sociologists, and vice versa, but more often than not scientists can’t even keep up with developments within their own narrow specialty. It is this very issue that has led people to speak of the present “multiversity” rather than a university — an insidious fragmentation of knowledge and consciousness and “the end of the Grand Narrative”. And it is in anecdotes like this that the dis-integration and fracturing of meaning and knowledge reveals its deeper association with the loss of the structural integrity of the mental-rational consciousness itself, but along with the utter failure to recognise it for what it is — the end of an era in a whimper, a “withering from within”.
And the reason is… the righteous mind itself. The consciousness of late modernity is simply not present to its own reality. “Legacy thinking” it has been called, or even “cognitive lock”, a mind become ambiguously secure within its own fabricated certainties.
To the extent that contemporary philosophy has failed to articulate a meaningful framework for the integration of “knowledge” — in terms of “the facts of the matter”, that is — Mr. Hawking is partially right. But neither has science — and particularly physics — articulated such a meaningful framework either. Mr. Newton’s “Frame of the World” and the Cartesian cogito seem to be the merely default position. Moreover, Mr. Hawking still seems to think that physics remains “Queen of the Sciences”, whereas it has lost — or is in the process of losing — that status to biology, while much that is called “biology” in turn looks enviously on physics and merely aspires, wrongheadedly, to imitate physics as “real science” rather than establish its own autonomy (with a few notable exceptions, of course).
If “philosophy is dead” — or has committed suicide — it is only because of a confusion of the “facts of the matter” with “the truth that sets free”, and that is the confusion of knowledge and wisdom, or equally of ideology with consciousness, or thinking with perception. These confusions (or reductions as assumptions of equivalence) are the issue of what cultural philosopher Jean Gebser refers to as the present “deficiency of the mental-rational consciousness” in the form of exclusive quantification and excessive reductionism. Mr. Hawking doesn’t seem to recognise the implicit nihilism in his own judgements on philosophy.
When has philosophy ever been most powerful, vital, influential and persuasive? Marx and Nietzsche are prime examples. It is when philosophy attempted to reconcile the mere “facts of the matter” with the “truth that sets free”, and compelled the “facts of the matter” to justify themselves purely in relation to the latter, and when it lifted the burden and yoke of resignation and fatalism from a life that had become too routine, too procedural, too mechanical, too formulaic, too dogmatic, too “reified”. The task of philosophy? The alchemy of revivification, or what Nietzsche also attempted by his ‘transvaluation of values’, which is, in essence, psychic alchemy as the transmutation of the leaden into the golden. And so knowledge, too, must undergo a transmutation into wisdom.
The righteous mind is a diseased mind — a stagnant and frozen mind — as Blake attests. This is, in effect, the lesson Jehovah taught Job in the Book of Job. The righteous mind never doubts itself or its own opinions or the assumption that it possesses a “principle” of righteousness. The early Nietzsche was quite like that, too. He was called “the Little Pastor” by his young associates. Very pious. Very devout. Nietzsche, to become the creative philosopher he did become, had to pass through the crucible of a humiliation, which was his incinerating “stare into the abyss,” after which, as Nietzsche-Zarathustra, he had to trudge his own ashes up the mountain for a ten years sojourn in the wilderness. Fate, in the Heraclitean sense, had shown Nietzsche the meaning of his own life — it was empty and abysmal. As painful as it was, his own humiliation was also a needed corrective to a deadening piousness, and a resurrection.
(There are some interesting parallels between Nietzsche’s curriculum vitae and the Book of Job).
Humility is a prophylactic against spiritual stagnation and the contraction of consciousness into narrow dogmas, far more than it is a “moral ideal”. It is a matter of intellectual and spiritual hygiene. The book of the Christians plays the values of “the proud” and “the meek” against each other, but this has more to do with the attitudes of self-righteousness and humility, respectively, and a critique of the former. If “the wages of sin is death”, the wages of self-righteousness is eventual humiliation, and so “pride goeth before a fall” (where “pride” really refers to the arrogance of the righteous mind). These aren’t matters of morality per se. These are pragmatic issues of psycho- and socio-dynamics (which is to say… energy). In a sense, the issue of self-righteousness — that one is in possession of a unique virtue that makes one distinctly virtuous — is connected with the Marxian notion of “reification of consciousness”, or solidification of the flux.
For this is what I had read into Fukuyama’s celebrated “end of history” screed, which awoke me from my own slumber, as it were. The “end of history” makes a claim for the Modern Era and the Modern West to be in possession a principle of virtue and of righteousness that it cannot justify, but which claim lends to the screed its “triumphalist” nimbus or aura. But the “end of history” is merely an admission of our arrival at a kind of “dogmatic slumber” or “cognitive lock”. It was, and is, not just delusional, in that sense, but rather the confession of a mentality that had long since become exceedingly over-ripe and which was now beginning to molder. To my mind, “the end of history” was the confessional of our own “withering from within”.
Hybris is the old term for what amounts to self-righteousness, or what otherwise might be called “ego inflation” (or even “Wego” inflation, to borrow from David Loy’s usage). But the mental-rational consciousness no longer believes in hybris as a problem, for it believes it has even mastered the problem of hybris itself-– or of overstepping and transgressing limits — too. That belief may, ironically, turn out to be its own fateful and self-devouring hybris — a hybristic belief that it has conquered hybris — and has thereby established itself as the centre and the terminus, the alpha and the omega, and the absolute beginning and end of all things. Such are the implications of the “end of history”. For if, as Rosenstock-Huessy once put it, “man is God’s poem”, Mr. Fukuyama presumed to know the end of it in advance.
The self-righteous mind is a barren wasteland in which no new life can enter because it has closed itself up against, and insulated itself from, that possibility. The “end of history” is only the image of an ego-consciousness no longer drawing sustenance from its deeper roots in the vital centre, and which has come to live as, and upon, the mere surfaces of things — dissociated. And that condition of dissociation is called “the culture of narcissism”. In a sense, it speaks of a consciousness become dissociated from a-wareness, if such a thing were possible.
It doesn’t take a fortune-teller or a clairvoyant to perceive that this is a mentality headed for a fall. William Blake clearly saw its fate, and its incipience, written within its dynamics in his own day — the latency of a future not yet become manifest reality in his time. Mr. Hawking’s judgement against philosophy is the judgement of Blake’s horror of “Single Vision & Newton’s Sleep”. The prophetic is not about fortune-telling, but of witnessing the immanence of the future within the present or, as Coleridge allegedly once put it,
“So often do the spirits of great events stride on before the events. And in today already walks tomorrow”.
The book of the Christians states that all sins are forgiven, except for one which is not forgiven and is called “the sin against the Holy Spirit”. Christians have knocked themselves out, I think, trying to avoid that sin without even knowing what it might be, perhaps, and in large measure also because few know the meaning of the “Holy Spirit”. The unforgivable sin isn’t difficult to discern. It’s the sin of self-righteousness, because it is a blockage in, or inhibition of, the flow, for “the Spirit bloweth where it listeth”. The consequence is an inevitable humiliation, which comes as consequence, and is really, in psycho-dynamic terms, a form of self-judgement.
In Blake’s poetry and visions, in an ironic twist, the self-righteous are called “the angels” and are considered by him “deceivers” — the propagandists of an obstruce and obstruent moralism and a purely abstract metaphysics; while the “devils” are the existentialists and the active energies of life. In other terms, Blake’s “angels” are “law & order” Tories, reactionaries, and counter-revolutionaries.
Something to bear in mind if you read Blake.