What'd I Say?, Part 2
Q: Are morals and ethics really “moving targets”?
A: No, I think they are stable targets toward which we are drawn. Spiritual evolution -- or devolution -- is a measure of how close or distant we are to these ideals.
The concept of objective morality confuses a lot of people, because they conflate the realm from which morality arises with the realm in which we physically exist. But the two realms are clearly not identical. Rather, part of the “human project,” so to speak, is to bring these two worlds into accord. This is the meaning of “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In the esoteric understanding, the dichotomy of heaven and earth symbolizes the ontological vertical divide, without which we truly would be condemned to a meaningless flatland existence: a journey from nothing to nowhere with a handful of gimme in between.
But the essence of our humanness involves our ability to intuit the realm of the real -- to distinguish between appearance and reality (or what are called maya and brahman in Hindu metaphysics). Remember, in genuine philosophy, the "ultimate real" does not refer to the constantly changing material world, but to the abiding reality behind it. Platonic realism refers to any school of thought that attributes reality to general ideas that are considered universal.
For example, most truly great mathematicians, if they are of a philosophical bent and reflect upon what they do, are more or less Platonists. Although great mathematicians possess a promethean creativity, at the same time, they know that they are not “inventing” anything. Rather, there is a deep and abiding sense that they are discovering permanent truths that exist in a mind-like dimension of the cosmos.
But where are these truths before the mathematician discovers them? Not only are they real, but in a certain sense, they are somehow more real than the world to which they give rise. In other words, these equations reflect the enduring reality behind shifting appearances. A cosmos -- which means "order"-- is not possible without them.
It is the same with modern physics. There is a helpful little book entitled Quantum Questions: The Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists, compiled by Ken Wilber, who, by the way, has been stalking me for years and tapping my phones, but I really don't want to get into that right now. The book demonstrates how all these formidable scientific minds -- Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Planck, Pauli, Eddington, et al -- arrived at a mystical or transcendental world view that regards the world as ineluctably spiritual and conscious rather than merely dead and material. Among other things, they could not reconcile the awesome beauty of the timeless mathematical world they had discovered with any deity-free cosmos.
Again, as I mentioned yesterday, this kind of natural theology only gets you so far, because one cannot necessarily equate the “God of the philosophers” with the God of the Bible or the Upanishads. But it is certainly enough, in my view, to grant that latter God an interview. After all, it’s a pretty impressive resume. If he wrote the laws of physics, who's to say that he couldn’t have inscribed the moral law within our hearts?
Again we return to the question of objectivity. Either morals are objectively true in the sense described above, or they are merely human agreements with an "enjoy by" date stamped onto them. But even when people have bad morals, such as the Islamists, they never regard them that way. Nor, as everyone knows, does the secular leftist ever regard his morality as an ephemeral thing of convenience. To the contrary, because the leftist collapses the vertical hierarchy of heaven and earth, he embarks on the urgent project of enforcing his morals by any means necessary, even if the means are grossly immoral, as history demonstrates ad nauseam with any leftist regime. The further left, the more immoral the government, all in the name of superior morality.
To point out a banality that may be news to some, both nazis and communists are left wing, in that they are both polar opposites of the classical liberalism of the American founders. What we call the modern conservative intellectual movement is specifically attempting to conserve the revolutionary spirit of our liberal founders, whereas what we call contemporary liberalism has an entirely different intellectual genealogy, in that it is always traceable to some form or aspect of Marxism. And as I have pointed out a number of times, please do not equate the conservative movement with “Republicanism,” as (tragically) there are very few philosophical conservatives among our elected representatives.
So the question is, who moves? Humans, or their moral targets? In the West, our primordial moral target is known as the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, which were appropriately engraved in stone by God. Nowadays, many secularized folks obviously have difficulty accepting these commandments as anything other than a quaint, antiquated, and somewhat arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts. But in my book, I have a section in which I attempt to demonstrate their vital contemporary relevance, not just in their exterior aspect, but in their inner significance. For not only are the Commandments horizontal rules for governing man-to-man relations, but they also have an interior dimension that communicates timeless, state-of-the-art advice on how to achieve spiritual progress.
In that section of the book, I outline the universal applicability of the Ten Commandments for extreme seekers, off-road spiritual aspirants, omsteaders, and cosmonauts of whatever vertical path. In other words, we are again dealing with something that partakes of timeless truth. This in itself is a rather profound mystery, because how, in the absence of divine intervention, could a primitive and barbaric tribe of nomads possibly have come up with these timeless truths that would still apply some 2,500 years into the future?
You try coming up with something that will still be relevant in a few years, let alone a few thousand, like the Honeymooners or the Andy Griffith show with Don Knotts. It's not easy. In all honesty, the gap between man in his barbaric and pre-civilized state vis-à-vis the sublime moral and psycho-spiritual laws encoded in the Commandments or the Andy Griffith show is essentially infinite and unbridgeable by any mere Darwinian “just so story.” I mean, if you can believe that, what won’t you believe? (As implied in the descryption beneath the title of this blog, I believe in both Darwinian [horizontal] and Darwhiggian [vertical] evolution.)
This reminds me of when I was frantically trying to finish my book, just over three years ago. The deadline was approaching, and at the last minute I had disassembled the entire last chapter and was in the process of trying to put it back together again. Among other things, I was attempting to come up with a suitable big bang-up ending, and I thought to myself, “why not show how the Ten Commandments and the Upanishads, understood esoterically, convey the identical perennial psycho spiritual know-how and be-who to serious seekers -- that they represent two independent views of the same transcendent reality? Call them the ten ‘Commanishads’ or ‘Upanishalts.’”
As soon as I thought of it, I knew that it was possible, although don’t ask me how I knew that I knew. However, I needed help. At the time, I happened to be on a plane flying back from New York to L.A, after having visited my brother-in-law and nephew. I was on the right plane, because I needed a rabbi in a hurry, and there is always a rabbi on a flight from New York. Normally I’m not the kind of guy who just walks up to to a total stranger and introduces himself, but something came over me. Being Jewish, I knew that he would have no choice but to be kind to this cosmic stranger on the esoteric plane.
I had seen this fellow enter the plane, and if he wasn’t a rabbi, then he was hardcore Orthodox, and that was good enough for me. Nobody dresses like that on a slightly sweltering plane. I walked down the aisle to where he was sitting, absently flipping through a magazine, and blurted out, “are you a rabbi?” He seemed a little farmisht at first, but he could tell at a glance that I wasn't Arab, and I explained to him that this was a spiritual emergency and that I needed some immediate assistance. He didn’t know anything about the Upanishads, but when I mentioned that some people believe that “Abraham” and “Brahman” might be etymologically related, he was intrigued. (I have no idea if that’s true, but at least it got the conversation going.) I knew we were on the same wavelength when he started his shpiel by saying that the first five commandments have to do with man’s relationship to God, while the second five govern man’s relationship to man. “Hey, vertical and horizontal! You 'da mensch!”
So to sum it all up, no spiritual progress is possible without the cultivation of virtue, the closing of the gap between us and our highest ideals. "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." But not arbitrarily. Timeless moral truths are the luster of the eternal target to which our lives are properly aimed. Or as some old seerslacker said, "Affix to the Upanishad, the bow incomparable, the sharp arrow of devotional worship; then, with mind absorbed and heart melted in love, draw the arrow and hit the mark -- the imperishable Brahman."
Say, did I mention that Brahman and Abraham are etymologically related?
Damn, that’s only the second question. Nine more to go. I don’t mean to be so verbose, but... To tell you the truth, Doc, this is one of the reasons why we’re here to see you. Frankly, Petey thinks I talk too much, especially for someone who “knows so little,” as he puts it. He recently alerted me to this new feature on amazon. It supposedly shows that only seven percent of the books in the world have more words per sentence than I do, and apparently most of them are written by a guy named Heidegger, which, I must tell you, is a bit of an insult, because I always thought Heidegger was a sort of mystagogic blowhard, not at all like me, whom in all modesty I consider a model of brevity compared to that Teutonic freak who goes on and on and on about the being of being and the nothingness that nothingness nihilates and how the self creates both the absence it presents and the presentation from which it is absent and how the self is both nothingness and the source of the nullity it embodies in public space and how the nothing "nothings" and how only the nothing nothings and how nothing can derive from something as if by a slow decay of the ding an sich or whatever you call it. Go ahead, Doc. You tell Petey. I don’t write that way, do I? Do I? Well?