The Primal Imperatives, II

I’m slowly working my way through Erich Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which is quite lengthy — it does, after all, have a great amount of historical material to work with and account for. I’m still uncertain how he will ultimately avoid dichotomisation of the human into two distinct vital centres, one of instinct (or as he prefers, “organic drives”) and the other of character. I’m not sure at this time whether he can resolve this without ending up with a Jekyll and Hyde conception of “human nature”.

It’s evidently the case that where Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, addresses the horizontal polarity of right-hemispheric and left-hemispheric modes of perception of the divided brain, but largely omits the “vertical” polarity of the neo and paleo aspects of the brain, Fromm, contrariwise, is dealing almost exclusively with the latter. “Instinct” and “character” can be taken as descriptive terms for old and new aspects of the brain, or as “lower” and “higher” functions. So, in those terms the brain is divided not just in two “directions” between the hemispheres and their distinct modes of perception — horizontally — but also vertically in terms of “new” and “old”. The human brain, on other words, is also largely fourfold and itself forms a Sacred Hoop and a Cross of Reality as discussed previously — left and right, old and new.

These polarities of the brain are evidently organised in a way corresponding to the polarities of space and time, therefore — inwards and outwards corresponding to the Master and Emissary relation examined by McGilchrist, while backwards and forwards (or “lower” and “higher”) correspond to the new and old aspects of the brain being examined by Fromm. In those terms, we do not have just two vital centres, but four vital centres. It seems to be the case that the brain’s organisation is such as to be the most effective instrument or organ for manipulating in physical reality and reflects the cosmic processes of a twofold time (past and future) and a twofold space (inner and outer).

It’s in those terms then that Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s predilections or moods of the soul, mapped to his “cross of reality”, seem to echo the brain’s organisation. Those predilections or moods he calls the subjective and objective relations to spaces inner and outer, and the trajective and prejective relations to times past and future, respectively. These are the “directions” or “dimensions” of our consciousness that constitute “the fourfold Self” and that fourfold Self’s historically realised forms of consciousness (or civilisational types) identified by Jean Gebser as archaic, magical, mythical, and mental-rational.

The various representations of this fourfold Self could then be taken as symbolic representations of this quadrilateral organisation of the brain horizontally and vertically, so to speak  — the brain’s “self-portrait” as it were.

Here is, once again, Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” and “grammatical method”

Rosenstock-Huessy’s new grammatical paradigm


Here is, once again, Blake’s own illustration of the four Zoas (ie “beasts”) or “four mighty ones in every man” (or woman, for that matter) which Blake also states “reside in the Human Brain”,

William Blake — the Fourfold Vision

Here, also, is Richard Moss’s “mandala of being” from his book by that title,

Richard Moss’ “mandala of being”

Here, again for comparison, is the all-important Sacred Hoop/Medicine Wheel of indigenous North American Indian culture

Sacred Hoop /Medicine Wheel

Here is an illustration of the Nordic Cross,

Nordic Cross

These symbolisations can be multiplied indefinitely, including references to “The Guardians of the Four Directions” in Buddhism, in Christianity (as the four Evangelists), in Chinese lore and legend as the “four dragons” and the Jade Emperor, or as the Sufi poet and mystic Rumi’s “four nafs” or “animal souls”, and so on.

A purely naturalistic explanation is that these are simply sublimations of the primal imperatives or “organic drives” described as “the four Fs” — the basic survival activities of feeding, fleeing, fighting, and fucking — as we discussed these in the previous post. And a purely naturalistic explanation is possible in that respect, that all higher brain functions, including the invention and development of language (and therefore also arts and sciences) were evolved to simply serve as more effective and efficient ways of organising these basic survival activities and satisfying those vital needs or “organic drives”. In fact, it would seem to even distinguish what we mean by “civilised” or “barbaric” ways of meeting the primal imperatives, and in terms of “high” and “low” culture respecting how these basic organic drives are to be organised and satisfied.

As noted, human beings spend enormous amounts of time and energy (and creativity) organising these four basic or primal activities in order to achieve some form of equilibrium among them.

“Feeding” or feasting becomes “consumerism” and is organised into agriculture and agribusiness, animal husbandry, orchards and vineyards, the distribution of foodstuffs, and also sublimated into cultural forms like culinary arts, national cuisines, dietary rules, restaurants, feast days, table manners, rituals, and protocols, and so on, even though its basic, naturalistic purpose is the recreation and restoration of the body.

“Fighting” relates to the organisation of a society for defence or for warfare, but also to those matters pertaining to sports, games, contests, and the martial arts, or strategic approaches to overcoming resistances of all kinds. The Olympic Games are thought of as a substitute for war-fighting. That would also include such “moral equivalents of war” as games, political campaigns, debating, or “competitiveness” and so on.

“Fleeing” is retreating, and that also can take particular cultural forms, not only as “retreats”, sabbaticals, holidays, and vacations, or the coziness of home, but as entertainment or such diversions and distractions from the stresses of everyday life: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death or Ernst Becker’s The Denial of Death, or Jerry Mander’s arguments for the elimination of television all call attention to the act of “fleeing”, even if as “the flight from reality”. It might even take the form of religion, particularly where it is obsessed with “otherworldliness” or “the better world to come”.

“Fucking” as the fourth “vital interest” or “organic drive” by which is meant, of course, pro-creation. Here again, this is highly organised culturally. There are certain protocols, rituals, and ceremonies governing the “carnal desires” that must be observed — rules and protocols governing procreation — dating, courtship, wooing, engagement, marriage, the organisation of family life, chastity, and so on.

It appears, then, that all the institutions of society, historical and contemporary — and perhaps even Gebser’s four consciousness structures — can be accounted for from a purely “naturalistic” explanation, as being derived from, or sublimations of, the primal imperatives — the four “organic drives” or “vital interests” of what some call the “appetitive nature”. Even the four contemporary ideologies of the Modern Age — liberalism, conservatism, socialism, environmentalism — seem to justify themselves by how much more effectively they can meet and satisfy the appetitive nature or the organic drives and desires. Is there any reason to hold that “character” (or personality) is any different?

Even all man’s technological advances seem geared towards little more than more efficiently and effectively organising space and time (habitat) for the purposes of satisfying the demands of the organic drives.

But what of the abstemious, the chaste, the fasting, the ascetic, the pacifist… the deniers of the appetitive nature, or what Herr Nietzsche might probably call “the Despisers of the Body”? Do they not act contrary to the primal imperatives and the organic drives? Why is that? Others, of course, will say that these activities have now been over-organised, and now exceed what is necessary for their satisfaction and for survival — the vices we describe as gluttony, greed, lust, cupidity, avarice, malice, escapism, acquisitiveness, and all the problems of excess that is upsetting the natural equilibrium and balance of things. Many obviously hold, too, that self-indulgence in these activities — or exceeding a modest limit — is ultimately destructive and deleterious to health and habitat.

Considering that a perfectly “naturalistic” account can be rendered for all this, what need is there for metaphysical or supra-natural explanations such as the notion of “soul”? Consider the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelation — Pestilence, War, Famine, Death. Are these not the very negations of “the four Fs” — the primal imperatives? Death here probably refers to the failure of pro-creation described as physiological or biological decadence (infertility), otherwise it would be simply redundant to include it in relation to the other three, which are deadly enough as is. What the Riders seem to represent is the “organic drives” gone awry as enantiodromia, or reversal at the extremity, and there is no need to discover in them some further metaphysical meaning and significance other than as representing Nemesis for hubris and excess in the pursuit of satisfying the primal imperatives — the survival instincts become perverse — the failure of feeding, the failure of fleeing or flight, the failure of fighting, and the failure of pro-creation.

In all this, purely naturalistic explanations seem to suffice, and seem very persuasive. Yet even some neurophysiologists, including Erich Fromm, are uncomfortable with such facile accounts of cultural institutions and consciousness as being rooted solely in the primal imperatives/organic drives of the brain and the body organisation. Their objections to this is what I want to explore in a further post on this theme of the fourfold as it relates to the organic drives.


3 responses to “The Primal Imperatives, II”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    There’s a very interesting review at “Rituals in the Dark” of some works by authors that I’m not yet familiar with, but which are very relevant to the themes raised here in the Chrysalis. I hope to get around to the books the blog’s author mentions

  2. Abdulmunem Othman says :

    Opening the doors of perception to see everything infinite is the door for self realization Schuon said human worth is in knowing the infinite. Thomas Aquinas said the measure of the human is to know the origin. Gesber call to return to the ever present origin. Blake said do not close up yourself in a narrow cavern. Ibn Arabi said my heart is a monastery for monks , synagogue for rabbis ,temple for pagans and an abode for all others. Falling under any other spell is confusing and often time misleading, that is why the mystic call always to recognize the oneness amidst the diversity in order not to get busy in the part and forget the whole and that is why Scott is always looking for the unified connecting thread among the different religious and cultural diversified expressions. Thank you Scott for your efforts in the path of unification, the integral consciousness mission.

  3. Abdulmunem Othman says :

    I remembered the lines of Rumi sent by IW that dovetail nicely with the flow of the spirits of the above masters in particular his line ,say One in your lonesome house, love is all, the rest is lie. Direct to the goal.

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