Last week we looked at how values pull us forward, inspiring us to strengthen our better natures. A moral ideal can only offer itself, we decide to pursue it or not. Values cannot push us forward; acts of goodness forced have not been considered moral acts since before the time of Plato. This has not kept some in every generation from trying to push values, forcing them on others. This authoritarian approach may no longer force conversions at gun point but the heavy handed ways of those authoritarian hierarchies we looked at back in Egypt’s pyramids is as prevalent now as it ever has been.
The difference between this push and pull is analogous to the difference in physics between tension, the force that pulls and compression which is the force that pushes. When a good friend who was a civil engineer taught us the basics of engineering he put the rule concerning these forces quite succinctly, “don’t push on a string.” In part this is how we build bridges that stay up through thick and thin. A similar principal dwells in the psyche.
The sponge that is the childhood brain absorbs the norms of its parents and society right along with its mother’s milk. The child progresses through its ethical training by extending its listening from the mother to the father, then on to the family, the baby-sitter or daycare attendant and on to teacher and classroom which will remain the context for the rest of that human being’s pre-adult development. In these environments the child encounters numerous conflicting messages about what is socially acceptable or not. We are educated in the good, the bad and the ugly.
The child is of course not a blank slate. They are bringing a very specific and unique set of genetic pre-dispositions to whatever events the play of chance, coincidence and circumstance deliver to their growing mind. Not one human being anywhere at any time could claim any less or any more than this same deep time inheritance. We now know a little bit about how the mind is prepared to respond to the environment it finds itself in by turning on and off the expression of genes as needed and even a little about how they are invoked by triggering circumstances. This moldable aspect of human nature has long been recognized, “give me a child till they are seven and I will shape the man” went the old Jesuit boast. A bit overblown perhaps but clearly the human child can be shaped into any number of cultural forms.
There is no choice about educating the young mind. That is going to happen. What should concern us is what values we are going to educate them in. Let us assume that the long rich history of human thought includes precious, hard earned insights into living well which we want to pass onto the next generation, as we say, religiously.
This being the case there are two ways we can think about our existential situation. One hypothesis is that whatever is of highest value that must be passed on to the next generation will be found outside the individual. In this view a sacred revelation or tradition or book rooted in the deep past is the single most important human wisdom. This is what they will strive to share with their children. This approach includes numerous spokespersons for delivering the moral message, including the parents themselves. If they are fundamentalist believers in these homes the natural teaching role of parents as loving, fallible human beings can easily become mixed up with the moral absolutes claimed by the divine.
The other way of thinking about the epigenetic nature of human development is rooted in the opposite hypothesis. By this way of thinking whatever is of highest value which must be passed on to the coming generation is something to be found within, in integrity and character. In this view the purpose of education is not to instill a truth from the outside that one dare not question but to provide what is needed for a human being to flourish through using their own capabilities. Education is the avenue for engaging in a dialog with inherited thought, guided by one’s own creativity and curiosity. The ideal is the life long learner.
These two understandings of the human condition diverge around the question of authority. Where should the locus of ultimate authority for an individual lie? It is worth reminding ourselves that all of human conscious experience has only ever been through the medium of individual lives. Though this is an obvious truism, it is easy to fall into an abstraction of the past that seems to somehow include something more. So it is a question about where an individual ultimately turns for meaning – to their direct experience of living and dying or to an external source, an authority to be obeyed even when conscience might insist otherwise.
I’ve presented the two possible hypotheses as if they had equal weight, as if it were a rather simple choice between which camps one belongs to. Perhaps in these opposing worldviews we could see the roots of the conservative and liberal, the believer and the agnostic, the republican and the democrat. Well, not quite. I think these are deeper waters, deep enough to see reflections of liberation, humility, and a joyful path.
The first camp provides a way for the voice of the individual to abdicate its responsibility for what it is teaching since they claim to only be passing on the received truth. Against this collective weight of shared belief those in the other camp have only their lone voice to raise in opposition; the deck is heavily stacked against them. Just consider for a moment how challenging it is to depend on your own understanding, your own insights one-hundred and ten percent. Those who take the path of the individual listen to the priests and gurus, scientists and philosophers but at the end of the day they bet with their lives on their own understanding of what is and what is not real and true. Even if they take to heart a tradition they never deny their own responsibility involved in making that decision.
I think it takes work to really be in the second camp and take responsibility for your own mind. We are all susceptible to numerous avoidance plays, even when we see the sense of this position. Modern life makes it very easy to get so busy we can become distracted away from the big questions for years, the questions of values and how we should live. It is also easy in this environment to harbor a vague dependency on experts. When this happens we do not just see them as the storehouses of detailed knowledge which they are, but as relieving us of the duty to think for ourselves. Then, for example, the ubiquitous response to concern about the Eco-crisis, ‘they’ll think of something,’ is expressing a fundamentalist belief instead of expressing the simple emotional aspiration; ‘Gee, I sure hope they think of something.’
Faith in engineering creates a technological priesthood just as surely as faith in holy books create the soteriological priesthoods.
It is interesting how this question of authority works well for appreciating some of the history of ideas that have accompanied Western history. The Protestant reformation was a move in the direction of the individual over the authoritarian hierarchy yet the results could hardly be said to qualify as complete liberation from membership in the first camp. In fact the most dogmatic Christian denominations are found among the Protestants. The movement of collective thought then took another step towards the individual with the rise of Deism, Nature’s God. These thinkers concerned themselves with battling superstition in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, which in their view only obscured the truth of the creator they found best expressed in the timelessness of scientific laws such as Newtonian dynamics. It is from the Deists that Masonry is born and, as mentioned last week, it is from Masonry that many of the ideals that inspired the formation of the United States are drawn. The United States has been at the forefront of another step towards the individual with modernization’s thoroughgoing secularization under a technocracy.
Numerous scholars have taken this move towards the individual in the history of ideas as their field of study. Just a glance at a few titles gives a sense of how it has often been interpreted; The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.
Today it is rather easy to recognize that there has been a fly in the ointment. Somewhere on our journey to Ayn Rand neoliberalism we went off the rails. Dissolving the effectiveness of the bulwarks of community left individuals as easy prey to the authoritarian hierarchies now firmly grasping the helm of history: the international mega-corporations.
There are further complications. The separation of the two camps in not as straight forward as this introduction to this new cycle of posts has implied. There is a key role to be played by what has been called the inner guru as an authority the individual needs to learn to recognize. Lacking this element, these steps towards the individual and away from authoritarian hierarchies leads to the type of empty, pompous egomania so pervasively on display in our day and age. Also it is true that among the non-fundamentalist sects there is recognition of the difference between a childhood faith based on accepting the word of others and a mature adult faith arrived at by an individual struggling with the quest for answers to the big questions on their own. The final complication we must consider is that there may be no black and white answer to a choice between the two camps; maybe all we can hope for is a position on the spectrum of belief.
As I said, I think it is hard work to be in the second camp. It is much easier to pride ourselves as being paragons of individual freedom than to actually live free lives.
A large part of why this is so deals with how the authoritarian voice is implanted in our heads through our long childhood. Extremely polarizing moralities are pushed by harshly critical inner voices; voices we usually only dimly perceive, yet they are adept at crushing our self esteem. Most people in a consumer society feel rather down on themselves, to put it mildly. To pull no punches about the inherent pathology: hating themselves they hate life, hating life they hate the earth on which it unfolds.