Politics in the New Normal II

Back in the days when I was a student at university, my fellow students would amble down the hallowed halls of academia muttering things about “nature versus nurture” to themselves and others. They had probably never thought about the question at all until some professor raised it as an intractable controversy in social science theory and philosophy. In some ways, “nature versus nurture” has been the core controversy, and root dilemma, of social philosophy.

In fact, it has deeper historical roots than contemporary social theory and social philosophy, and consequently contemporary politics. But the tendency to cast the question in such a way is a stark reminder of what Gebser considers one of the chief deficiencies of the mental-rational consciousness — the tendency to think in mutually exclusive dualisms.

Resolving the “nature versus nurture” controversy was a big deal, actually. Depending upon which you decided for, you also chose or justified your politics as either conservative or liberal-progressive, or even reactionary or revolutionary.

Within the secular horizons of the Modern Era, the “nurture” position was best expressed by the French liberal philosophe the Marquis de Condorcet (1743 – 1794), an enthusiast for the European Enlightenment and, with the optimism of the Age of Reason, waxed eloquent about “the infinite perfectibility of man”. That’s the progressive or even revolutionary attitude in a nutshell, even though “infinite perfectibility” seems something of a self-contradiction. It is also the attitude that informs Adam Smith’s economic theories — the eternal pursuit of happiness and the never-ending quest for the perfect life or utopia. The “infinite perfectibility of man” resembles something like the dream of a perpetual motion machine.

The “infinite perfectibility of man” ran up against the conservative skeptics and the scoffers who insisted that this “infinite perfectibility of man” collided forcefully with the constraints and limitations of something called “human nature” (usually considered ignoble or sinful), which is also something of a self-contradiction. Human nature was deemed not only imperfect but also inherently corrupt and imperfectible. But ever since, these two contradictory, and self-contradictory tendencies have been warring it out socially and politically like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.

This political-secular controversy between “human nature” or “human nurturance” has deeper roots in the moral interpretation of the world, and more specifically in Jesus’ commandment to his followers: “Be thou therefore perfect even as Thy Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:48). That’s a pretty tall order. It’s this imperative which really starts the ball rolling, as it were. Time and history becomes the process of godman-making, and it is this imperative which forms even the contemporary progressive interpretation of time and history. Jesus seems to be demanding something quite absurd of his followers — that they should become as God is. And this imperative still rules the thinking of William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche, too.

The root Christian commandment, “be thou therefore perfect”, also collides with something called “original sin”, and that human nature (and all nature in fact) is incorrigibly corrupted — all of physical existence is tainted by sinfulness. Human nature is imperfect and also imperfectible and life in the flesh is an inevitable corruption.

Jesus commandment turns time into history, and history into a process of continuous self-overcoming and self-transcendence. The commandment also to “die to oneself daily” is a corollary to “be thou therefore perfect”.

Of course, the two contrasting values implied here are “God” and “Nature” and, correspondingly, the sacred and the profane, and these also coincide with the subject-object dichotomy. There is also the problem of the merely moral interpretation the meaning of “perfect” or perfectible, and it was the moralisation of the meaning of “perfect” against which both Nietzsche and Blake both raged, because they understood “perfect” as being something quite different from a mere moral interpretation of existence — it meant “fulfilled” or “complete” or “entire” or whole, as the word itself means “per-factus” meaning “thoroughly made” or “well-made”.

Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” consciousness is his reconciliation of God and Nature, or nurture and nature. The other-worldly God had to die in order to be reborn as the God-within, just as Blake’s “Urizen” is the other-worldly God as Jehovah, but also called “the Selfhood”. God-consciousness is possible for humans precisely because “the body is the temple of the living God” and “the kingdom of heaven is within you”. And the new conception of “God within” lends an entirely different complection to the old dichotomy of “nature versus nurture”. Rosenstock-Huessy’s statement that “God is the power that makes men speak” is also a repudiation of the absolute apartness of the old idea of God, as a God in exile.

The God idea or “God within” is an important shift in the understanding of “human nature” and the understanding, correspondingly, of perfectibility. It just ain’t what it used ta be. And reflecting on the history of God, it’s astonishing really that God was projected outwards as being “beyond”, as “the Absolute Other” or “Wholly Other”. God is a value, an ideal towards which human beings are supposed to evolve through a continuous self-overcoming or authentic self-realisation. And in view of this new understanding of what is called “God” or many other names, the whole nature versus nurture controversy now seems trite and even somewhat irrelevant — the dilemma of a bygone age that still nonetheless hangs around like a zombie.

The Sadhguru, in one of his Youtube clips, tells an interesting story in this respect. A man who was a devout believer in God, but who began to have doubts, came to the Buddha and asked “Is there a God?”. The Buddha looked at the man and said “No”. Another man, who was a miltant atheist, and who everywhere preached against belief in God, also began to have doubts. And he came to the Buddha and asked “Is there a God?”. The Buddha looked at the man and said “Yes”. The gist of that story is — “what you believe — whether you believe or disbelieve — is irrelevant. See for yourself”. In most other cases, when the Buddha was asked whether there was a God, he simply refused to answer the question with either a Yes or a No, because both would be misleading. Most people believe that Buddhism is an atheist religion, but the Buddha’s parable refutes that. The Buddha’s silence on the question was a sensible silence, which amounts to an answer — “see for yourself”.

“Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you”. This “seeking” is need, and this “knocking” is questioning. And unless you feel the need and the question, there is no finding and no opening. The spirit does not come to the mind that has already made up its own mind.


4 responses to “Politics in the New Normal II”

  1. abdulmonem says :

    The spirit as a guest visits those who are prepared and willing to host it. Nature and nurture is a false dichotomy and god does not like those who do not like him.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    Beautifully meaningful, essay. “the dilemma of a bygone age that still nonetheless hangs around like a zombie.”

    I love it. 🙂

    Indeed, we have inherited many zombies from history like that. Some far more ruinous and dangerous than others. For example, I’m astounded by how some ancient members of our species were keenly ‘aware’ of the effect of ‘time’ on myth making and the impact of such myths on the course of man’s destiny.

    Quite amazing how visionary and how truly EVIL these people who started these myths were. When I think of it, the “nurture versus nature” zombie is quite harmless by comparison.

    But why should I be surprised? Shouldn’t it be obvious to me that myths’ grip on man and his societies is always inversely proportional to the courage of the people who were exposed to these myths?

    The most courageous of us form and live in societies where myths have very tenuous grip on people and their lifestyle – if at all – since there have been many who had the courage to question them and cast bright light on their hollowness and lack of substance. While, the most timid of us form and live in societies that are filled with these stories from the past that have grown into giant monster ideologies controlling the entire society, simply because the people never had the courage to question them. Instead they did the worst thing they could do: they passed them on to their children generation after generation. And they suffer greatly for it, too; them and their children.

    Indeed, “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” Anything else is just political economy.

  3. davidm58 says :

    Of all the things I’ve forgotten since college, I still remember when I first learned the “nature vs. nurture” idea. I also remember the psychology professor who first taught us the theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

    I agree with Little Big Man. This is a “beautifully meaningful essay.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, which Jung retained as a principle of his analytical psychology, nudged me out of the trap of dualistic thinking. It’s an Hermetic principle and, I think, relatively important for Gebser’s way of thinking, too.

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