Complements Will Get You Everywhere
I actually have a photo -- one of these days I’ll transfer it to digital so you can all see it -- of the day I set out to write the book... Gosh, I was such a different person back then... Hey, out the window, a squirrel! Wait, I’m getting distracted here... The photo shows me in my office liberary with I don't know how many books from various disciplines strewn all over the floor. I'm standing there in my magic robe, brooding over them, trying to figure out how they all fit together.
Anyway, as I think I pointed out in the autobibliography of the book, I have the type of mind -- if it is a “type” and not just a quirk or something worse -- that just doesn’t like the idea of all these competing truths hovering about in an unsynthesized manner. I don’t like it when I see that truth of science over there in the corner smoking a cigaret by itself, and that truth of religion over there against the wall, hanging out with its little clique. My impulse is to get the two together and try to show how they are related -- how they reflect a higher truth.
I was fortunate in my choice of psychoanalysts, because he had a very capacious mind that always emphasized the importance of complementarity and paradox. People in the West don’t realize the extent to which they have internalized a wholly rationalistic, Aristotelian framework to understand the world, but rationalism can only get you so far. In its either/or default setting, it can reduce the intellect to a computer and reality to a machine.
But especially in more profound matters, it’s almost always more of a “both/and” situation. For example, one of the issues I constantly struggle with is the tension between tradition and modernity, which has countless ramifications, depending on how you resolve it. It is easy to come down on one side or the other, but I think victory of either side would result in a catastrophe for mankind.
Obviously, I have the highest regard for Frithjof Schuon, who is without a doubt the most articulate spokesman for the traditionalist school. But my spiritual life only began to take wing under the auspices of people like Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin, who are both unabashed “evolutionists.” Schuon detested both of them because he felt that the great revelations were essentially timeless and set in stone, and that they addressed primordial “man as such,” not “evolving man.” His view may sound severe or simplistic, and while it may be the former, it is not the latter. As spiritually elevated as he was, he could not help seeing the absolute horror of the modern world. And it is a horror. The more I grow, the more vividly I see this. I do not believe it is going too far to call it a spiritual atrocity.
But what to do about it? The paradox, or “complementarity” at the heart of the modern conservative movement is the tension between tradition, which preserves, and the free market, which relentlessly destroys in order to build. While individual conservatives may or may not contain this tension within themselves, the conservative coalition definitely does, with the “religious right” on one end and libertarians and free marketeers on the other. People wonder how these seeming opposites can coexist in the same tent, but the key may lie in their dynamic complementarity, for freedom only becomes operative, or "evolutionary," when it is bound by transcendent limitations -- which, by the way, is equally true for the individual.
The ironically named progressive left is an inverse image of this evolutionary complementarity. This is because it rejects both the creative destruction of capitalism and the restraints of tradition. Therefore, it is static where it should be dynamic, and dynamic where it should be static. It is as if they want to stop the world and “freeze frame” one version of capitalism, which is why, for example, they oppose free trade. While free trade is always beneficial in the long run, it is obviously going to displace some people and some occupations. It is as if the progressive is an “economic traditionalist,” transferring the resistance to change to the immament realm of economics instead of the spiritual realm of transcendent essences.
I know this is true, because it is what I used to believe when I was a liberal. For example, I grew up at a time when most people worked for large corporations that gave their employees generous pensions and health benefits. As such, it seemed "natural" or normative. In reality, this was just a brief phase of American capitalism, lasting from the mid-1950’s through the 1970’s. But backward looking progressives act as if this aberration was “in the nature of things.” They have a similar attitude toward factory jobs in heavy industry, as if we could somehow go back in time and preserve these high-wage, low-skill jobs.
But while the progressive is thoroughly backward looking with regard to economics, he is the opposite with regard to the spiritual realm. For him, mankind was basically worthless until the scientific revolution, mired as he was in myth, magic, and superstition. Rather, the only reliable way to understand the world is through the scientific method, which has the effect of throwing overboard centuries of truly priceless accumulated spiritual wisdom. It literally severs man from his deepest metaphysical roots and ruptures his vertical continuity. In reality, it destroys the very possibility of man in the archetypal sense -- i.e., actualizing his "spiritual blueprint."
A new kind of man is born out of this progressive spiritual inversion. Yesterday we spoke of castes and of “spiritual DNA.” Progressives, starting with Karl Marx, waged an assault on labor, eliminating its spiritual significance and reducing it to a mindless, collective “proletariat.” You might say that the left honors labor in the same way they honor the military: both are losers.
Again, it is amazing how much things can change in a mere generation. It’s not as if I grew up that long ago -- the 1960’s -- but I didn’t know anyone who obsessed over what he was going to do for a living when he grew up, nor did anyone care what anyone’s father did for a living. There was much more of an idea that it didn’t really matter what you did for a living, and that all work was noble. Maybe I was naive, but I never gave it a second thought that my friends’ fathers included a plumber, a retail clerk, a lawyer, a janitor, an accountant, a bricklayer, a liquor store owner, and various other occupations.
Today it’s as if there is shame attached to some of these professions, undoubtedly due to the abiding progressive contempt for those they presume to speak for. I personally cannot say that I’m any happier as a psychologist than I was as a retail clerk those 12 years. In many ways, I preferred manual work because it freed up my mind for higher things, while being a professional clogs up your brain with annoying "intermediary" trivialities. I am generally lost among the intellectual proletariat that takes this intermediate realm seriously. Yesterday someone characterized my caste as “priest artisan,” but perhaps “laborer priest” is more like it -- a blue backward collar worker.
Ever since it came into existence, the United States has been the key to the material and spiritual progress of mankind. The founders were well aware of this fact, having chosen the image of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt as the state seal. Clearly, Moses was not merely leading the Jews from physical slavery to economic freedom, but from spiritual shackles to the higher possibility of vertical liftoff in the desert.
But there's no such thing as a free launch. While there are obviously wonderful individuals, mankind as a whole is a pretty hopeless, often despicable, case. Here in the United States, thanks to our truly avataric founders, we discovered a way of life that could balance the complementarities of the spiritual and material, of tradition and progress, of science and faith, of liberty and constraint, of self-interest and charity.
At the conclusion the Constitutional Convention in 1787, someone asked Ben Franklin what sort of government had been decided upon. He famously replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." But it’s much more than that. It is also a freaking paradise -- or the closest thing you’re ever going to get to paradise on this earth -- but only if we can keep it. And we can only keep it by consciously cultivating the complementarity between the spiritual and the material, between tradition and capitalism, between liberty and transcendent obligation, between vertical and horizontal.
This post began as a comment on this related article, but never quite got there: Dear Muslims: Which "House" is America to you?