Understanding Understanding Evil
What is it? Where does it come from? It seems to be one of those irreducible concepts that we cannot do without, despite the mockery of sophisticated leftists who would like to eliminate it from our vocabulary as an outmoded barbarism (except as it applies to rubes such as President Bush who believe it exists). Here again, through a sleight of language, the left thinks it can make an unpleasant reality go away. In fact, the greatest evils in the history of mankind were committed by thoroughly secularized communists and nazis who would have scoffed at the idea that evil exists except in purely expedient sense.
But human beings cannot help thinking in terms of good and evil, any more than they can help themselves from thinking in terms of true and false, even if they are not unsophisticated enough to believe that Truth exists. The problem, of course, is that human beings believe many things to be true that cannot possibly be true. Likewise, they have little difficulty reconciling themselves to evil and calling it good.
One of the things that turned me toward religion is that it presents such a vastly more sophisticated ontology than any secular philosophy. I will be the first to admit that this came as a total surprise to me. In initially pursuing the spiritual life, I was not looking for “knowledge.” Nor, for that matter, was I looking for anything along the lines of “eternal life.”
Rather, I was looking for an “experience” to which countless sages, saints and mystics had testified down through the centuries. This well-documented experience goes by various names--moksha, samadhi, nirvana, enlightenment, etc.--and is simply one of the modes available to humans, like falling in love.
But the windbag bloweth where it listeth, and I was gradually drawn down a slightly different path, I suppose based upon my own inner inclinations and potentials. This is in keeping with the spirit of yoga, which identifies at least five distinctly different forms, each suited to a different temperament: hatha yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, and raja yoga. In my case, I began with raja yoga--the yoga of meditation--but I am apparently more of a jnani, which is the yoga of wisdom, metaphysical knowledge and discernment.
I probably shouldn’t even say that, because it is for others to determine for themselves whether there is any wisdom or knowledge in what I write about. However, I can describe what it feels like to me, because it is both very distinctive, and, as I said, very unexpected.
I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it was about a decade ago. After years of what I would call mere intellectual study, it was as if I had suddenly crossed some kind of threshold, and I understood in a different way. What is interesting to me is that this didn’t involve any kind of advance in learning or knowledge, but an apparent advance--or at least alteration--in understanding. In other words, not a change in content, but a change in form, very much analogous to the way Piaget describes the cognitive changes a child goes through as they move from developmental stage to stage. You can pour all the knowledge in the world into a concrete operations child, but they will understand it in an entirely different way once they move into formal operations.
For me, the spiritual life has been exactly like that. Esotericism represents a kind of “pure” understanding that is anterior to what is understood. Since you “understand,” you might well ask the question, “what is the nature of that which is understood?” In other words, is it possible to deeply understand something that doesn’t really exist? Think about that for a moment. To make it easier, shift over to the material realm.
Take the example of Einstein. In 1903 (or thereabouts) he had a deep insight into the nature of physical reality. He “saw” something no one else had seen, but this wasn’t a case of mere “seeing.” Rather, he deeply understood. Having understood, he knew that what he understood could not possibly be wrong, even though he understood something quite counterintuitive--even impossible, based on then current models of reality--and it took another two decades or so for his understanding to be empirically confirmed and to become knowledge that was widely available to others, so that they too might understand in a more conventional way.
Thus, the leading edge of Einstein’s discoveries was a sort of pure understanding.
I think the process is more or less identical with spiritual understanding, although the entire enterprise is fraught with many more hazards because of the more exact nature of mathematical language as opposed to spiritual language. The horizontal realm deals with quantities, whereas the vertical realm deals with qualities, or degrees of being. Plus, the vertical axis has an above and a below, and more often than not, the above becomes contaminated by, or thoroughly conflated with, the below. The history of religion proves this time and again. Many religious thinkers, panties be upon them, are almost pure below.
Spiritual knowing is a kind of vision, but obviously not of the sensual kind. One doesn’t “see” a different world, any more than Einstein literally saw subatomic particles in his day-to-day life. However, with any kind of real knowledge--even scientific or psychological knowledge--one sees the multiplicity and relativity of the world, but at the same time sees through and beyond the world in its metaphysical transparency. Something shines through, in the same way that the unconscious leaks out for one trained to observe it, or the noetic light shines through a great painting or piece of music.
Science is the religion of the ultimate object. Religion is the science of the ultimate Subject. Science studies the world in order to understand it. Esotericism understands the world in order to study it. Science begins at the center--the mysterious and unexplainable human subject--and extends its search to the periphery of the cosmos, to all the of the minute ramifications of multiplicity. Each edge or strand of multiplicity represents a department or discipline of science. I suppose this is why my mind is so undisciplined. To be a disciple of the One, it must be.
Spirituality begins at the periphery and moves back toward the center, toward a more general synthesis, which is another word for understanding. For to understand means to reduce a multiplicity to a unity. It is Truth as opposed to truth, the latter of which pertains only to the periphery. Truth is the unity of truths. It is what “sets you free” when you realize it, because it liberates you in the vertical, giving you a new perspective on the horizontal.
Again, to my everlasting surprise, the languages of various authentic religious traditions turned out to be vehicles of intellection for higher Truth. By imaginatively dwelling in their systems of thought, they reveal themselves to be windows to heaven, or transmitters of interior vision.
This itself introduces a profound mystery, that is, how is it possible for so-called ancient scriptures written by ignorant men to have this capacity--not the outward knowledge they contain, which is often an irrelevant distraction to the uninitiated--but the inner guidance and pneumatic trajectory they provide? Understood literally and exoterically, religion often doesn’t make a lot of sense to the modern mind. But what if we’re missing the point? What if religion is trying to facilitate not knowledge, but pure understanding?
This is one of the adverse consequences of the Enlightenment mentality that has been bequeathed to us--that is, a bleaching of the distinction between intellection and intellectualism, wisdom and knowledge, thought and understanding. It is with these distinctions in mind that we can move on to an analysis of the ontological status of evil.
Which I suppose will have to wait until tomorrow, because this little overture has turned into an overchore that has probably already taxed the reader. But in the next few days, I would like to look at the issue of evil from the Jewish, Christian, and Vedantic standpoints, and see if they do indeed provide any kind of useful understanding in the sense discussed above.