Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Being and Nuttiness: O, Where Does it End? (3.19.08)

If we could only somehow get to the bottom of it all. Isn't that what we're trying to do? Have a direct, unmediated encounter with reality, whatever that is?

Science has a lot of answers. But only to very narrow and specific questions. If you ask the wrong question, you get no answer at all, like, "Why are truth and beauty so intimately related?" Worse, some questions just generate paradox, like, "What was before the big bang?"

Various sciences abstract from the meaning of being as a whole, which is only possible because truth emanates from being, a truth which we may know. How is that possible? Science can never explain the existence of the truth-bearing scientist, any more than you can give birth to yourself.

Sciences develop very technical languages to convey this truth of Being--for example, the language of quantum mechanics or the hyper-sophisticated coding of the human genome. But again, these languages aren't Being itself. The map is not the territory. The human genome project is not alive, and you cannot make a cosmos out of mathematics.

Being just is. We can describe it any way we like, but our description can never exhaust the infinite ocean of Being. It perpetually flows into our little vessel of human knowing without being diminished one iota.

In my book, I use the symbol "O" to stand for the infinite and unknowable ground of ultimate reality that undergirds our existence. It can never be known. We can only "know about" it.

In fact, we can know many things about O, just as I can know many things about you. But I can never know you the way you know you in an unmediated way, from the inside. Only you can have this kind of "inside information" about yourself.

Thus, observational science proceeds in the direction of O--(k), while logico-deductive science proceeds in the direction of (k)-->O. (k) is the realm of everyday dualistic knowledge about O. This knowledge may be known objectively and passed like an object from mind to mind.

For example, the theory of natural selection is (k) about the ultimate unknowable mystery of the living O. It is not to be confused with O. For surely, O is alive, and yet, it is hardly a biological object.

The theory of natural selection can never, ever tell you how O evolved to the point that it could hypothesize and know a truth about itself, any more than musical notation can account for the existence of music.

Music is completely unperturbed by all efforts to capture and contain it. All the music that has been produced in the history of the world has not yet made a dent in it.

Music will continue to flow forever, just as will language. Language will never explain the ceaseless creativity language. It just flows and flows and flows, regardless of your theory or system. It is truly infinite, since it is one of the primary modes of O. "The Word" was with O from the beginning, and the beginning is always now.

Science must satisfy itself with (k), which is fine. Obviously, (k) has its place. Since most cultures revolve around (-k), I thank God that I live in a place that mostly honors (k). Any method of science is only correct to the extent that it submits to O and allows itself to be molded and determined by the object it is studying.

But for most of history--and in much of the contemporary world, in particular, the Islamic world--this direction is reversed, and reality is determined and molded by (k), which automatically makes it (-k). In the case of the Islamic world, it is overrun with (-n), which never touched O to begin with.

Worse yet, when (k) replaces O, one then lives in the parallel loooniverse of -O, which is where so much of contemporary leftist wackademia resides. Whenever you deny O, you will simply replace it with a -O.

In fact, you may even elevate yourself to O, as do so many secular fundamentalist fanatics. They do this in both trivial and profound ways, from dictating how the infinitely complex system of the economy should be governed, to making it against the law to discuss O in public schools.

We in the West suffer from the opposite problem that afflicts the (-k) Muslim world. Unfortunately, our culture does more than honor (k). Rather, it elevates it to the highest. The secular world tries to eradicate O and replace it with mere (k), which automatically places you in a counterfeit world at least one degree removed from reality.

Religions, properly understood, attempt to restore our primordial relationship with O. Fundamentally, they contemplate the holy and manifest mystery of Being by trying to enter it directly--not talk about it but from within it. And when they do talk about the mystery, it is not in the manner of (k)-->O (or at least it shouldn't be). Rather, the direction is reversed, and it is O-->(n).

(n) is not to be confused with (k). To take just one obvious example, it would be a grave error to reduce the words of Jesus to mere (k). Rather, Jesus spoke in almost pure (n). You will note that Jesus used no technical terms at all. Obviously, specialized (k) can be quite technical. Most of it is well over--or under---my head.

But (n) is often quite homespun and plain--even rustic--sounding. The Tao Te Ching, for example, contains no technical terms at all. Nor do the Upanishads or the Talmud. Nor, for that matter, did most of the great philosophers of history employ any technical language: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Schopenhauer. Only when (k) started to become confused with O did we see this great confusion in philosophy, a confusion that pervades the contemporary academic world.

In fact, sad to say, contemporary philosophy has detached itself entirely from O. It now consists of nothing more than (k) about (k), which, suffice it to say, is merely (-k) as it pertains to metaphysics, which is the science of the Real.

That is, if revelation represents O-->(n), metaphysics is nothing less than (n)-->O. The latter is not possible without the former. Without genuine O-->(n), metaphysics will just be an intellectual parlor game, as in the grotesque mystagoguery of a Heidegger. As it pertains to O, plain speaking is the mark of authenticity. Problems only arise when people confuse the plainness of religious language with mere (k).

Fundamentalism in any form--whether secular or religious--is the reduction of O to (k) or (-k).

The world of (k)-->O is a barren one that is unfit for humans. Being spontaneously gives itself to us, but in order to appreciate that, we must adopt an attitude of receiving. If we do not maintain this receptive attitude, the world cannot open up and give of itself from within--within to within, alone to alone (or Allone to a lone).

This is a love relationship. It is phil of sophia, a love-filled longing for the Real. Love opens up the world. Or rather, allows us to appreciate the Love, Truth, and Beauty that are just there. Why are they there? It is a mystery to be savored, not a riddle to be answered.

For as the Upanishads tell us, the universe is a tree, its roots aloft, its branches down below. And as Christianity teaches, it is a Tree of Life for those whose wood beleaf.


I think I will start a new feature on the blog, that is, monitoring some of Petey's far-flung activities. He's all over the blogosphere, dropping little notes here and there. (Sometimes he has to do it under my name, because he doesn't have his own password.)

He wants me to call it "Petey's Corner," but I challenged him to come up with something better.

I notice that Petey left a pointed comment on Dr. Sanity's blog yesterday, regarding her suggestion that the Left declare itself a religion. He said,

"I like this idea, since liberals are halfway there. After all, they already make a god out of their irreligion. It would be just a small step to make a religion out of their godlessness.

"Of course, being a godless irreligion, liberalism has no god, only demons. Plenty of them, from Alar to Zionists.

"And the motto of the N.Y. Times would have to be, 'There is No God, and We are Her Mouthpiece'."

In fact, Petey also commented on the Muslim version of the Vagina Monologues. It's a very short play. Just one word: "HELLLLLLLLLLPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!

Petey doesn't understand why the left is obsessed with collateral damage in the Muslim world, but couldn't give a hoot about the far more widespread clitoral damage.

Today, Dr. Sanity has a song parody of "I'm a Lumberjack and I'm Okay," by Monty Python ("We're the Democrats and We're Okay). Petey had the effrontery to add a final verse of his own to the Maestro's offering:

I hug the trees, I wear high heels
Suspendies and a bra
I wish I'd been a girlie
Just like ex-Pres' Jimmah'

Of course, Petey does not intend to question the masculine sexual power of Hillary Clinton. For one thing, he agrees with Sharon Stone that it's way too threatening.


Lisa said...

Good Morning-

It is beautiful how God has placed signs for us to see wherever we look. I was just brushing my teeth and thinking about the big O. As I stared at my eyes in the mirror, I saw both my iris and pupil as O's. One O neatly fitted inside another O spiraling into infinity.

Ok, off to start another beautiful day!

Gagdad Bob said...

When the student is ready the pupils appear.

Will said...

lolol, Bob . . OK, if we have another outburst like that, I'm going to have to clear this court . . .

Anyway, re the irreligion of libs: Rudolf Steiner the mystic philosopher made a distinction between the evils of the Luciferic and the Ahrimanic. The first is the primal fire, unsublimated. In a way, the Luciferic pre-supposes the Great Mystery, the Great One-ness, only it chooses to elevate the unsublimated fire over sublimated love. Nazism with it flamboyant paganism and bleck leather/lightning bolt fetish, was Luciferic.

Communism, on the other hand, was/is Ahrimanic, meaning: devoid of fire all together, dead matter, the reign of the uber-k. "Scientific materialism". Whereas the Luciferic refuses redemption, the Ahrimanic evil of communism and all it contemporary PC spawn denies the possibility of redemption, at least in the spiritual sense. It denies the grounds on which redemption is possible.

The semiotics of eternally Leftist Hollywood is interesting: H'wood produced a zillion films about the Nazis - they still pop up from time to time. But of the more pernicious, longer-lasting evil of cold war communism, hardly anything. I have to think that ultimately they don't recognize communism/the Ahrimanic as being evil. Well, that's pretty obvious, actually.

Now granted that it's probably more dramatically appealing to depict an evil that is flamboyant, this imbalanced ratio is pretty telling. Artists are supposed to engage the basic dramas of life, the good vs evil issues, within and without. But in H'wood as it reflects the larger Lefty world never addressed the gunfight at the O>>k corral.

Really, I did not know I was going to include that last sentence when I started writing this. In other words, I did not write this as an excuse to include that last sentence.

Anyway, yes, k is the evil to be reckoned with. The Islamofascists are, to a degree, Luciferic in their M.O. But the Lefty response to them is k, and therein is the greater threat, I think.

Bro. Bartleby said...

His disciples said, "Show us the place where you are, for we must seek it."
He said to them, "Anyone here with two ears had better listen! There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world. If it does not shine, it is dark."
Jesus said, "Love your friends like your own soul, protect them like the pupil of your eye."

The Gospel of Thomas 24

Gagdad Bob said...


Excellent analysis--very fruitful way of looking at the difference.

As I mentioned in the book, "Ahriman is his own worst enemy." That goes double for Hollywood.

The book "Coming to Our Senses," by Morris Berman, has an interesting chapter about the "ascent theology" of nazism. Chilling and fascinating.

Kahntheroad said...


Actually, Hollywood did depict the war against communism - and the United States was always the enemy, or, rather, there was some Dr, Strangelove archetype of the Military Industrial Complex who was intent on nuking the world; a mad and evil shadow lurking deep within our poor innocent government, which was only trying to help the poor and solve all the world's ills.

But now that you mention it, can anyone think of a Hollywood movie that depicts the evils of totalitarian communism as they did Nazis?

Gagdad Bob said...

Interestingly, the Mother--Sri Aurobindo's collaborator--wrote of how Hitler was inhabited by a demon, or "asura," that would take control of him, whereas Stalin was actually a rarer type, in that he was literally without a human soul.

I'll have to find the exact passage.

Lisa said...

Here is an interesting article I found that explains why Hollywood igrnores Communism. Maybe some of the new conservative directors and producers that gather at Libertas can start making one that accurately portrays the evils of Communism. Hollywood just needs to do some serious house cleaning and start from scratch creatively! Isn't it obvious why no one wants to go to the movies anymore?

Will said...

Bob, re Stalin's soul or lack of - I've heard the same of H Himmler, who, though a Nazi, evidenced the Stalin-ish, technocrat gray emptiness. I imagine he would have been interchangeable as a Nazi or dedicated bolshi.

Will said...

Lisa, good sleuthing!

See, we were right to promote you to consigliore.

Gagdad Bob said...

Or entertainment executive. Or trial lawyer.

Lisa said...

Lol, I'll take that as a compliment! (I think!?!)

I am going to Idaho tomorrow and will be without an internet connection for 3 days. (the horror!) I am getting some training at the MBT Academy. It should be very exciting and fun, but I will miss checking in at One Cosmos throughout the day! I feel like most of the commenters and Bob have become true friends. Thanks for the intellectual stimulation!

Bryan said...

Hi Dr. Bob,

Concerning the Mother's remark about Hitler and Stalin, does contemporary Western psychology have an explanation about what it means to be possessed by an asura on the one hand or not to have a soul on the other? Is an asura a particularly bad mind parasite?

I've seen it remarked (where I don't remember) that several high-profile Islamic terrorists gave the same impression of not having a soul, of being dead and vacant inside.

Btw, thanks for the reference to M. Berman. He looks like an author I'll want to read.

Gagdad Bob said...


No, when you get into the realm of asuras, you're dealing with an entirely different ontology taking place on an another plane. There's a little footnote in my book to that effect, p. 285, f. 104. I spoke there only of higher entities. As for the lower ones, some people believe they are independent agents, others think they are quasi-independent human creations that have become detached from the psycho-cosmic system.

When you look at the magnitude of nazi or Stalinist or Islamist evil, it seems to go beyond human bounds, beyond anything explainable by the categories and methods of psychology. Of course, psychologists can pretend they understand, But they're only pretending.

Bryan said...

Would you disagree then with Alice Miller's argument that Hitler's and Stalin's cruelty can be traced to their childhood experience of severe abuse? A standard counterargument to Miller's position, of course, is that not all victims of severe childhood abuse turn into Stalins, so that the experience of abuse would not be a sufficient condition even if it were a necessary condition.

This question interests me because, as a Buddhist, one of my disagreements with my Christian friends has to do with whether or not "evil" holds water as a philosophical concept. That there is suffering, dukkha, there can be no doubt, but it is not clear to me that "evil" could mean anything more than the fact that sentient beings suffer, which is an empirical concept rather than a metaphysical one.

The two questions are somewhat related because Hitler and Stalin seem like good examples of phenomena that cannot be explained without recourse to metaphysical evil. As you observe, "It seems to go beyond human bounds, beyond anything explainable by the categories and methods of psychology." However, whether or not we can currently explain such phenomena without appealing to metaphysical evil is logically separate from the question of whether or not we will ever be able to do so, or whether or not it is fundamentally possible to do so.

In other words, with all due respect to the great Mother, the asura hypothesis makes me somewhat uncomfortable because it seems to me less of an explanation for someone like Hitler than a confession of ignorance concerning how to explain someone like Hitler.

Lisa said...

Wow! Bob, you are good! I just got the book today in the mail. It looks like I won't be missing out on all the fun! Loved the lil' limerick...can't wait to dig in!

Will said...

Lisa, via con Dios.

I go see the Pilates dominatrix again tomorrow. By the time you get back I might be only able to make noises like a raccoon.

dilys said...

Well, there seem to be people with especially discriminative levels of insight. I don't know the Mother, so have no opinion about her, but none of these taxonomies are impossible.

For the degree to which the ecstatics are potential pawns to WhatEver forces, see this in Policy Review:

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who sto
od with the angels of historical inevitability.

I think of it as striking a pose, you see it everywhere; and it's the toxic outcome of a certain undisciplined Romanticism. Yet another feature of Bob's approach: his favored sources do not privilege feelings, fee-eee-ee-lings...

The spiraling down into grey of the soviet was described (by those who experienced both nazism and communism) as more soul-destroying in its reach, in addition to the murderousness. Partly because of its intellectual-religious devotion to and enforcement of the lie.

But either way, Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice...

A Frosty piece that should semi-harmonize with Bryan's Buddhist scruples :-)

Will said...

Bryan -

Some people can perceive metaphysical evil in, as Bob would term it, a vertical manner,that is, perceive it through extra-sensory organs.

A person who can't perceive it in such a way, can't say with full justification that such perception doesn't exist, only that they don't experience it.

I'm convinced that meta-evil, as a thing in itself, does exist. It is, in some sense, an illusion as Buddhists would contend, in that it is based on ultimately false values, values that "don't work" in promoting health, happiness, community, etc.

As I see it, evil is a reversal or out-of-sync-ness, of the natural progressive order. Instead of a sublimation of instinctual energy/primal fire leading to transcendence and union with the One, there is a regressive move back toward the primal fire of Creation, ie. pride, love of power, etc.

I don't have any prob believing that there are entities living in the primal fire of Creation and doing so by choice. There is indeed a great energy there, a great force that imbue an entity, human or otherwise with a kind of "supernatural" power. That's why, I think, that evil is often more canny, more crafty, than is the Good. I've heard that some of these drug dealers from S American are particularly charismatic and have great force of personality, even of a certain "charm".

Exoteric historians often express a certain amount of bafflement - if they are honest - over how a guy who couldn't raise himself above corporal after 5 years military service in WW1 could end up fifteen years later the Reichsfuhrer of Germany, a truly charismatic figure who commanded a mesmorizing power of persuasion. There does seem to be quite a bit of occult history re the Naziz, Hitler in particular. There appears to have been a group of people who worked with Hitler in stimulating his life-force, his Kundalini, via certain meditational methods, which eventually resulted in the creation of a literally satanic embodiment of evil. This was much more than the "absence of Good". Yhis was a force unto itself, and it really was an example of meta-evil.

Gagdad Bob said...


For the moment I will have to simply align myself with the sentiments expressed by the gentleman from Illinois. I just received a list of questions for my interview Friday, and I need to clear my mind and ponder them.

The topic of the ontological status of evil is an important one. To a certain extent, it can only be illuminated by entering a tradition that talks about it and has a vocabulary for it. In other words, from the scientific viewpoint it's a de facto nonsense question. But so are most other matters of vital importance to human beings.

I've read some very good books that attempt to psychoanalyze Hitler--the best one was "The Psychopathic God," by Robert Waite. Still, the evil embodied by Hitler or Satlin or Mao seems to me to be off the map of psychology. A difficult childhood may be necessary but it is insufficient to account for the magnitude of evil we're talking about, any more than the goodness of a saint can be reduced to a happy childhood.

When entering this territory we need to rely other maps, but unfortunately, the best maps were developed prior to the scientific revolution, so they are mixed with a lot of psychopathology on the one hand and mythology on the other hand.

I'll post more on the topic at a later time. There are a few fairly modern sources that I know of that discuss it in a balanced and credible way.

Tusar N Mohapatra said...

It would be more appropriate to look at The Mother's identification of the four Asuras rather than selectively revile political adversaries.

Gagdad Bob said...


If you don't revile evil, there is something defective in your soul. Respectfully, you sound like one of the fools Aurobindo had to repeatedly correct, those who "have no idea about the world and talk like little children. Hitler is the greatest menace the world has ever met."

Defeating Hitler, according to Aurobindo, was not just war, but "a defense of civilization and its highest attained social, cultural and spiritual values and of the whole future of humanity... There cannot be the slightest doubt that if one side wins, there will be an end of all such freedom and hope of light and truth, and the [spiritual] work that has to be done will be subjected to conditions which would make it humanly impossible; there will be a reign of falsehood and darkness, a cruel oppression and degradation for most of the human race such as people in this country do not dream of and cannot yet realize."

Sri Aurobindo wanted to burn evil from our midst. What do you want to do, talk about it?

Rorschach said...

Sorry for length. Frustrated at present, for reasons to be revealed in following.

Reading excellent translation of TAO TE CH'ING by U.K. LeGuin. Perhaps not as perfect or elegant as might be hoped (like comparing language of KJV to NIV), but more than serviceable as introduction to thought.

Regrettably, translator LeGuin's political agenda (such as it is) does sneak into commentary on certain pieces.

I refer you to the following excellent translation of Ch. 16:

"Be completely empty.
Be perfectly serene.
The ten thousand things arise together;
in their arising is their return.
Now they flower,
and flowering
sink homeward,
returning to the root.

The return to the root
is peace.
Peace: to accept what must be,
to know what endures.
In that knowledge is wisdom.
Without it, ruin, disorder.

To know what endures
is to be openhearted,
magnanimous, regal, blessed,
following the Tao,
the way that endures forever.
The body comes to its ending,
but there is nothing to fear."

Fine rendition: but LeGuin, whom I presume is a "secular humanist," then ruins all her fine work to this point with following smug assertion in commentary: "To those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it, or spirituality of which man is not the measure, the firmness of Lao Tzu's morality and the sweetness of his spiritual counsel must seem incomprehensible, or illegitimate, or very troubling indeed."

This is ONLY wrong note I have encountered in book so far, I hasten to add. But something here sounds wrong to my ears. Then again, not a Taoist.

Lisa said...

Thanks for your well wishes, will! Say that 3 times fast! Just remember to breathe and you should be fine. Have fun and always take a break if you need it!

Looks like things are just starting to warm up around here...

Tusar N Mohapatra said...

Thanks for the diatribe. The emotions would be more nuanced once we recognise the perennial nature of the antagonism, best expressed in the Vedic imagery of Vritra, the serpent. The four Asuras represent an evolutionary road-block, they are yet to be annihilated.

Only the Supramental Descent can handle that. The Mother simply asks us to collaborate, nothing more, nothing less.

jwm said...

Hitler was a vector for Evil
Communism is a vector of Evil.
Islam is The vector of Evil.

Hitler was Evil vectored through a single mortal man. It was his charisma that animated the Third Reich. Even if Hitler had won, or retreated to a truce in the second world war I don't think the government he created would have lasted long after he died. The third reich was utterly corrupt. It would soon have descended into chaos.

Communism is Evil vectored though a bad idea. Communism would march on even when any single one of its leaders died. It took a sustained effort of American will and force throughout the many years of the cold war to break the back of the Soviet Union.

Islam is Evil vectored through bad religion. The totalitarian world of sharia makes life under communism look appealing. Every copy of the koran is a potential vector. Every imam is a potential vector. There is no single charismatic leader to defeat. No government to undermine. And religion has an authority that trumps allegience to governments and political leaders every time.

Again, it's an image I have. The world of the twenty first century is the prize. Evil kept us busy with the first and second world wars, and then worried our attention away during the long slow slog with the Soviets.

But all this was a distraction for the showdown we are now faced with. A showdown with islam: headless, amorphous, able to cross political boundaries as if borders did not exist. Militant. Relentless. Patient. As fiery as Hitler, and as cold and icy gray as Stalin at his worst.It holds one fifth of the world, and makes no secret of its ambitions for the other four. Slide into darkness?


Gagdad Bob said...


You can wait for the Supramental Descent to vanquish evil. You can also wait for it to fix you breakfast in the morning. Something tells me you won't wait for the latter. Hunger is too important not to fight.

Gagdad Bob said...


Good point. People and ideas are merely lenses through which the evil refracts. I've often had that image of the evil of the Third Reich--we ousted it from Germany, but then it just migrated into the Arab world. Seems to have a similar quality.

Will said...

My new T-shirt reads: "I asked the Supramental Descent to prepare me a continental breakfast and all I got were these d*%# wheat thins."

Will said...

Rorscharch -

LeGuinn is actually all right, I think. As you probably know, she's been an ace sci fi/fantasy writer for years, is really one of the best. Most of her writing shows a genuine and intriguing mystical bent. Compared to most sci-fi writers (who really are obnoxiously secular humanist), LeGuinn is fairly sane.

Rorschach said...

Know all about her. Just frustrated that such a good writer should have lapsed into righteousness at such a crucial point.

Meanwhile, I find her exegesis of one of final verses in TAO TE CHING practical. Explains that this verse is not only about what followers of Tao should fear from life, but what those with capacity to govern should not give them. Advice for ruler and subjects alike.

MikalM said...


Sorry about the length of this post, but I've always liked this particular discussion of the nature and manifestation of evil, which touches upon some of what's being discussed here. It's from the Prologue to the classic horror story, "The White People," by Arthur Machen:

"SORCERY and sanctity," said Ambrose, "these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life."

Cotgrave listened, interested. He had been brought by a friend to this mouldering house in a northern suburb, through an old garden to the room where Ambrose the recluse dozed and dreamed over his books.

"Yes," he went on, "magic is justified of her children. I There are many, I think, who eat dry crusts and drink water, with a joy infinitely sharper than anything within the experience of the 'practical' epicure."

"You are speaking of the saints?"

"Yes, and of the sinners, too. I think you are falling into the very general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely good; but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have their portion in it. The merely carnal, sensual man can no more be a great sinner than he can be a great saint. Most of us are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures; we muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and the inner sense of things, and, consequently, our wickedness and our goodness are alike second-rate, unimportant."

"And you think the great sinner, then, will be an ascetic, as well as the great saint?"

"Great people of all kinds forsake the imperfect copies and go to the perfect originals. I have no doubt but that many of the very highest among the saints have never done a 'good action' (using the words in their ordinary sense). And, on the other hand, there have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin, who all their lives have never done an 'ill deed.'"

He went out of the room for a moment, and Cotgrave, in high delight, turned to his friend and thanked him for the introduction.

"He's grand," he said. "I never saw that kind of lunatic before."

Ambrose returned with more whisky and helped the two men in a liberal manner. He abused the teetotal sect with ferocity, as he handed the seltzer, and pouring out a glass of water for himself, was about to resume his monologue, when Cotgrave broke in--

"I can't stand it, you know," he said, "your paradoxes are too monstrous. A man may be a great sinner and yet never do anything sinful! Come!"

"You're quite wrong," said Ambrose. "I never make paradoxes; I wish I could. I merely said that a man may have an exquisite taste in Romanée Conti, and yet never have even smelt four ale. That's all, and it's more like a truism than a paradox, isn't it? Your surprise at my remark is due to the fact that you haven't realized what sin is. Oh, yes, there is a sort of connexion between Sin with the capital letter, and actions which are commonly called sinful: with murder, theft, adultery, and so forth. Much the same connexion that there is between the A, B, C and fine literature. But I believe that the misconception--it is all but universal--arises in great measure from our looking at the matter through social spectacles. We think that a man who does evil to us and to his neighbours must be very evil. So he is, from a social standpoint; but can't you realize that Evil in its essence is a lonely thing, a passion of the solitary, individual soul? Really, the average murderer, quâ murderer, is not by any means a sinner in the true sense of the word. He is simply a wild beast that we have to get rid of to save our own necks from his knife. I should class him rather with tigers than with sinners."

"It seems a little strange."

"I think not. The murderer murders not from positive qualities, but from negative ones; he lacks something which non-murderers possess. Evil, of course, is wholly positive--only it is on the wrong side. You may believe me that sin in its proper sense is very rare; it is probable that there have been far fewer sinners than saints. Yes, your standpoint is all very well for practical, social purposes; we are naturally inclined to think that a person who is very disagreeable to us must be a very great sinner! It is very disagreeable to have one's pocket picked, and we pronounce the thief to be a very great sinner. In truth, he is merely an undeveloped man. He cannot be a saint, of course; but he may be, and often is, an infinitely better creature than thousands who have never broken a single commandment. He is a great nuisance to us, I admit, and we very properly lock him up if we catch him; but between his troublesome and unsocial action and evil--Oh, the connexion is of the weakest."

It was getting very late. The man who had brought Cotgrave had probably heard all this before, since he assisted with a bland and judicious smile, but Cotgrave began to think that his "lunatic" was turning into a sage.

"Do you know," he said, "you interest me immensely? You think, then, that we do not understand the real nature of evil?"

"No, I don't think we do. We over-estimate it and we under-estimate it. We take the very numerous infractions of our social 'bye-laws'--the very necessary and very proper regulations which keep the human company together--and we get frightened at the prevalence of 'sin' and 'evil.' But this is really nonsense. Take theft, for example. Have you any horror at the thought of Robin Hood, of the Highland caterans of the seventeenth century, of the moss-troopers, of the company promoters of our day?

"Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such an enormous importance to the 'sin' of meddling with our pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness of real sin."

"And what is sin?" said Cotgrave.

"I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?

"Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin really is."

"Look here," said the third man, hitherto placid, "you two seem pretty well wound up. But I'm going home. I've missed my tram, and I shall have to walk."

Ambrose and Cotgrave seemed to settle down more profoundly when the other had gone out into the early misty morning and the pale light of the lamps.

"You astonish me," said Cotgrave. "I had never thought of that. If that is really so, one must turn everything upside down. Then the essence of sin really is----"

"In the taking of heaven by storm, it seems to me," said Ambrose. "It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner. You can understand why it is so rare. There are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint."

"There is something profoundly unnatural about Sin? Is that what you mean?"

"Exactly. Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels and in making this effort man becomes a demon. I told you that the mere murderer is not therefore a sinner; that is true, but the sinner is sometimes a murderer. Gilles de Raiz is an instance. So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is--to man the social, civilized being--evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall."

"But are you a Catholic?" said Cotgrave.

"Yes; I am a member of the persecuted Anglican Church."

"Then, how about those texts which seem to reckon as sin that which you would set down as a mere trivial dereliction?"

"Yes; but in one place the word 'sorcerers' comes in the same sentence, doesn't it? That seems to me to give the key-note. Consider: can you imagine for a moment that a false statement which saves an innocent man's life is a sin? No; very good, then, it is not the mere liar who is excluded by those words; it is, above all, the 'sorcerers' who use the material life, who use the failings incidental to material life as instruments to obtain their infinitely wicked ends. And let me tell you this: our higher senses are so blunted, we are so drenched with materialism, that we should probably fail to recognize real wickedness if we encountered it."

"But shouldn't we experience a certain horror--a terror such as you hinted we would experience if a rose tree sang--in the mere presence of an evil man?"

"We should if we were natural: children and women feel this horror you speak of, even animals experience it. But with most of us convention and civilization and education have blinded and deafened and obscured the natural reason. No, sometimes we may recognize evil by its hatred of the good--one doesn't need much penetration to guess at the influence which dictated, quite unconsciously, the 'Blackwood' review of Keats--but this is purely incidental; and, as a rule, I suspect that the Hierarchs of Tophet pass quite unnoticed, or, perhaps, in certain cases, as good but mistaken men."

"But you used the word 'unconscious' just now, of Keats' reviewers. Is wickedness ever unconscious?"

"Always. It must be so. It is like holiness and genius in this as in other points; it is a certain rapture or ecstasy of the soul; a transcendent effort to surpass the ordinary bounds. So, surpassing these, it surpasses also the understanding, the faculty that takes note of that which comes before it. No, a man may be infinitely and horribly wicked and never suspect it But I tell you, evil in this, its certain and true sense, is rare, and I think it is growing rarer."

"I am trying to get hold of it all," said Cotgrave. From what you say, I gather that the true evil differs generically from that which we call evil?"

"Quite so. There is, no doubt, an analogy between the two; a resemblance such as enables us to use, quite legitimately, such terms as the 'foot of the mountain' and the 'leg of the table.' And, sometimes, of course, the two speak, as it were, in the same language. The rough miner, or 'puddler,' the untrained, undeveloped 'tiger-man,' heated by a quart or two above his usual measure, comes home and kicks his irritating and injudicious wife to death. He is a murderer. And Gilles de Raiz was a murderer. But you see the gulf that separates the two? The 'word,' if I may so speak, is accidentally the same in each case, but the 'meaning' is utterly different. It is flagrant 'Hobson Jobson' to confuse the two, or rather, it is as if one supposed that Juggernaut and the Argonauts had something to do etymologically with one another. And no doubt the same weak likeness, or analogy, runs between all the 'social' sins and the real spiritual sins, and in some cases, perhaps, the lesser may be 'schoolmasters' to lead one on to the greater--from the shadow to the reality. If you are anything of a Theologian, you will see the importance of all this."

"I am sorry to say," remarked Cotgrave, "that I have devoted very little of my time to theology. Indeed, I have often wondered on what grounds theologians have claimed the title of Science of Sciences for their favourite study; since the 'theological' books I have looked into have always seemed to me to be concerned with feeble and obvious pieties, or with the kings of Israel and Judah. I do not care to hear about those kings."

Ambrose grinned.

"We must try to avoid theological discussion," he said. "I perceive that you would be a bitter disputant. But perhaps the 'dates of the kings' have as much to do with theology as the hobnails of the murderous puddler with evil."

"Then, to return to our main subject, you think that sin is an esoteric, occult thing?"

"Yes. It is the infernal miracle as holiness is the supernal. Now and then it is raised to such a pitch that we entirely fail to suspect its existence; it is like the note of the great pedal pipes of the organ, which is so deep that we cannot hear it. In other cases it may lead to the lunatic asylum, or to still stranger issues. But you must never confuse it with mere social misdoing. Remember how the Apostle, speaking of the 'other side,' distinguishes between 'charitable' actions and charity. And as one may give all one's goods to the poor, and yet lack charity; so, remember, one may avoid every crime and yet be a sinner"

"Your psychology is very strange to me," said Cotgrave, "but I confess I like it, and I suppose that one might fairly deduce from your premisses the conclusion that the real sinner might very possibly strike the observer as a harmless personage enough?"

"Certainly, because the true evil has nothing to do with social life or social laws, or if it has, only incidentally and accidentally. It is a lonely passion of the soul--or a passion of the lonely soul--whichever you like. If, by chance, we understand it, and grasp its full significance, then, indeed, it will fill us with horror and with awe. But this emotion is widely distinguished from the fear and the disgust with which we regard the ordinary criminal, since this latter is largely or entirely founded on the regard which we have for our own skins or purses. We hate a murder, because we know that we should hate to be murdered, or to have any one that we like murdered. So, on the 'other side,' we venerate the saints, but we don't 'like' them as well as our friends. Can you persuade yourself that you would have 'enjoyed' St. Paul's company? Do you think that you and I would have 'got on' with Sir Galahad?

"So with the sinners, as with the saints. If you met a very evil man, and recognized his evil; he would, no doubt, fill you with horror and awe; but there is no reason why you should 'dislike' him. On the contrary, it is quite possible that if you could succeed in putting the sin out of your mind you might find the sinner capital company, and in a little while you might have to reason yourself back into horror. Still, how awful it is. If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning; if the furniture began to move in procession, as in De Maupassant's tale!"

"I am glad you have come back to that comparison," said Cotgrave, "because I wanted to ask you what it is that corresponds in humanity to these imaginary feats of inanimate things. In a word--what is sin? You have given me, I know, an abstract definition, but I should like a concrete example."

"I told you it was very rare," said Ambrose, who appeared willing to avoid the giving of a direct answer. "The materialism of the age, which has done a good deal to suppress sanctity, has done perhaps more to suppress evil. We find the earth so very comfortable that we have no inclination either for ascents or descents. It would seem as if the scholar who decided to 'specialize' in Tophet, would be reduced to purely antiquarian researches. No palæontologist could show you a live pterodactyl..."

Will said...

Rorscharch -

i've found that almost all artists, Leguinn included, are, for all their artistic brilliance, just ordinary people when it comes to spiritual insight. I never expect much from artists in terms of real spiritual insight. Actually I think LeGuinn is just a little ahead of the pack when it comes to that. I'm not sure if it was really a "lapse" on her part as much as she was just taking it as far as she was capable of going.

dilys said...

Mikal's reference is very interesting. Thanks. There is a kind of shadowy Edwardian flavor to such stories that reminds me of a recent time when British culture was quite interested in serious things.

It's useful in its stimulus to take questions of virtue and vice past the "All I did was...." to proclivities, character, and perhaps, as the excerpt suggests, essence and core appetites-and-allegiances.

Just today brought up something similar: "Aristotle says virtue is a hexis, a habit, a settled disposition of the soul to feel and act" in reference to matters of the neurology of stress, virtue, and such.

One suspects not only that vice in smaller matters is an early run-up to what Machen describes, but that in the negative direction there is an occult turning point, an initiatory act, a transaction, that shreds, even murders, the residue of inhibition.

I do not know if there is a mirror-image, similar initiatory act for the saint. There may well be, one more interior, a betrothal of the soul at a nexus of opportunity, on the model of the Virgin's "Be it done unto me" or Jesus' "Thy will not mine."

This turn of thought does, however, highlight the theme that intelligence about our motives and moral tastes is at least as important as our acts, however justified or explained. The Book of Revelation distinguishes "sweet to the taste, bitter to the belly" from its obverse.

Tasting the nature of one's own desire and disposition, measuring its love-filled longing for the Real. Or not.

Bryan said...

Thanks to all who commented on my questions about metaphysical evil, and I apologize for my delay in response. I was a little indisposed last evening.


You write, "Some people can perceive metaphysical evil in, as Bob would term it, a vertical manner,that is, perceive it through extra-sensory organs.

A person who can't perceive it in such a way, can't say with full justification that such perception doesn't exist, only that they don't experience it."

True enough, and I would fall into the category of not being able to perceive metaphysical evil, and my inability to perceive it certainly does not give me logical grounds to deny that it exists. On the other hand, it is far from clear to me that the claims of some people that they can perceive it give me grounds to believe that it does exist. C. S. Lewis remarks somewhere that he only knew two people who claimed to have seen a ghost, but that the strange thing was that neither believed in ghosts. Lewis said, "And they were quite right. Seeing is not believing." Similarly, I have many New Age friends who can perceive all kinds of entities that I cannot (i.e., the angels Gabriel and Michael, my spirit guides, my aura and the energy blockages therein, etc.), and while I cannot prove that they are deluding themselves, I would feel rather foolish to give them credence.

This I think is worth emphasizing because we have been using things like Nazism, Communism (esp. under Stalin), and theocratic Islam as representatives of incarnations of metaphysical evil, yet I would claim that theocratic Islam at least provides a good example of why "suffering" (dukkha) is a more useful concept than "evil".

We assert that 1) metaphysical evil exists and that 2) the Islamic theocrats are incarnations of it. However, I would immediately observe that the Islamic theocrats share our belief in metaphysical evil but that they regard us as the incarnations of it. So who is right, and what are our grounds for believing that?

If someone were to assert that he or she knows that we are right because he or she has perception of the metaphysical evil residing in the Islamic theocrats, then I would have to reject that as an unverifiable argument.

However, this is not actually the way we tend to think about such questions. Is not the reason that we have confidence in opposing the Jihad the fact that theocratic Islam creates immense suffering for those under its sway (cf. Petey's brilliant rewrite of The Vagina Monologues)? We oppose theocratic Islam not because we can perceive that metaphysical evil inheres in it, but because it is a cause of great suffering.

And this I would claim is in fact the only valid reason that we could have for opposing it. If theocratic Islam did not create massive suffering for people, and someone were to assert that we should go to war with it because it participates in metaphysical evil, then that assertion would have to be rejected, just as we would not allow fundamentalist Christians to burn Wiccans, regardless of how evil the fundamentalist Christians might think witchcraft is.

The primary motive that I personally have for opposing the concept of evil and wanting to replace it with dukkha is that the concept of evil tends to lead people into severe confusions about what actually is "evil". The conviction on the part of the Islamic theocrats that Americans and Christians are evil is one example. To descend to a more innocuous and comical example, one could site the way that so many of our fundamentalist Christian friends beclown themselves by expending a great deal of emotional energy in denouncing the hideous evil of other people's orgasms.

Choosing to ignore the conflicting claims about what is "evil" and what is not, and instead asking what creates suffering and what eliminates it, quickly cuts through that kind of confusion. This suggests to me that the concept of evil is redundant and obfuscating.

Now, if someone wanted to claim that what manifests as suffering in the physical world has psychic, subtle, or causal correlates (in Buddhist terminology, nirmanakaya, samboghakaya, and dharmakaya level), I would not necessarily have a quarrel with that. Ken Wilber says something somewhere about psychic evil, subtle evil, and causal evil, although the context of the passage makes it clear that he could substitute the word "pathology" for "evil" with no loss of meaning. Nor would I necessarily have a quarrel with someone who wanted to assert that nonhuman and disembodied intelligences exist who do not have our best interests in mind. I personally do not see any reason to believe in such entities, but the claim that they exist is an empirical claim and would have to be evaluated on empirical grounds, even if it is hard to imagine what kind of evidence would be decisive.

Dr. Bob,

You write, "When entering this territory we need to rely other maps, but unfortunately, the best maps were developed prior to the scientific revolution, so they are mixed with a lot of psychopathology on the one hand and mythology on the other hand."

I very much look forward to reading your further thoughts on this topic when you have leisure.


The excerpt you quote is a fascinating one, and I am glad you brought it to our attention, though I have some qualms with the position it sets forth. It almost seems to be taking a Manichean stance, asserting that evil has an independent reality from the good, which the Western church since Augustine has always denied, asserting instead that what we call evil is a mere privation of good. Not that one has to agree with the church; just an observation.

Also, I find troubling the definition of evil as "the taking of heaven by storm... an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner." The point of this definition appears to be to condemn occultists, such that Aleister Crowley, for instance, would have to be considered far more evil than Joseph Stalin. I would want to ask, who decides what is a "forbidden manner", and upon what grounds is the decision made? Did the Buddha, for instance, penetrate into the higher spheres in a forbidden manner, and is he therefore more evil than Saddam Hussein? I wonder if even the Lord Jesus would have accepted this definition, since he said, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."

Btw, even though I am taking a dissenting stance, I am really enjoying this debate and hope that we can continue it.

Will said...


>>Choosing to ignore the conflicting claims about what is "evil" and what is not, and instead asking what creates suffering and what eliminates it, quickly cuts through that kind of confusion. This suggests to me that the concept of evil is redundant and obfuscating.<<

That works for me, too. Some time ago, I suggested in this space that, in a religious context, certain words such as "sin", "evil", etc., have accrued a lot of emotional resonance over the centuries, to the extent that their original intent and meaning might have been lost long ago. That's why I tried to define "evil" in the way that I did, as a regression back into the primal fire. It's a bit more of a "clinical" explanation.

I do realize that words like "ego" and "primal fire" also have a certain emotional baggage. I don't think you're going to escape entirely a certain emotional resonance to whatever words you might use to express suffering and its causes. Even the word "suffering" is going to come with a certain amount of barnacles.

dilys said...

Bryan, your position that "Islam causing suffering" is a very good reason for action, and less a pistol to be turned against us. However, there is an ongoing discussion in intelligent Christendom about the serious problems epistemological and metaphysical of adopting utilitarianism and consequentialism, which is the basis of your argument. Maybe, like Arjuna, we look within and to our deities and do the best we can. The philosophical rabbit trails tangle.

Also, it is not necessarily Manichean to locate or even abstract the presence of evil. Even regarding Evil as an absence of Good, I don't think Augustine had any differences with the doctrine that there is an Evil One or more affiliated with and embracing that Absence. The Lord's Prayer invokes deliverance from the power of The Evil One, and the Initiation in the Wilderness also locates an evil "other," whether inside or outside the individual psyche.

And incidentally, to separate it out from dingbats walking around with their own purposes, fundamentalist Christian doctrine isn't opposed to other people's orgasms. Where intelligent and consistent [? :-) :-( ], it is based in a web of understanding about the nature of man and sex, and the cosmic and social and indeed anerotic consequences to individuals and humanity of engaging it in a variety of unsanctioned contexts, as though it were a rousing game of tennis and little more.

I too look forward to this clarification, occasionally debate, in this really amazing Bob-O-Hosted For That Matter, What Isn't Enlightenment??!! medium.

Bryan said...

Hi Dilys,

I agree with your statement, "It is not necessarily Manichean to locate or even abstract the presence of evil," and with your claim that belief in the Evil One is not inconsistent with the Augustinian definition of evil as a privation of good. I was asserting not that Christian doctrine is Manichean but that the quoted passage from Arthur Machen's "The White People" appeared to be, and I was basing that impression on the statement, "Evil, of course, is wholly positive--only it is on the wrong side." For whatever that's worth...

I would be very interested to read the arguments of the contemporary theologians you mention who argue against utilitarianism and consequentialism. It is true that my stance can be characterized as utilitarian although not in a classical sense. The classical utilitarians tended to recognize value only residing in the material plane, whereas I would tend to accept Ken Wilber's Basic Moral Imperative, "Protect the greatest depth for the greatest span," as a foundation for ethics.

If a theologian wanted to argue that even that is insufficient and that the hypothesis of metaphysical evil is necessary, then I would ask, given any action, how do we know whether or not it is evil? A theologian might appeal to the will of God, but then I would ask, does God disapprove of certain actions because they are evil, or are those actions evil because God disapproves of them? If the latter, then we are philosophically helpless in the face of the Islamic theocrats who claim to know what God's will is. If the former, then we cannot appeal to God's will to decide whether or not an action is evil; the criteria for its being evil or not cannot be God's will but must be something else altogether.

And what are those criteria? "Causes suffering" is one that springs immediately to mind, but I honestly cannot think of any others.

If my analysis here is valid, then "evil" is strictly synonymous with "causes suffering" and has absolutely no other meaning.

Incidentally, my wisecrack about denunciation of orgasms was probably rather out of place. I do have some disagreements with Christian sexual ethics, but that's a separate discussion.