Liberation From Our Modern Purgatory
From Material Civilization to Sacred Knowledge
I. Material Civilization
What is a chief mark, a distinguishing characteristic of our time, of the particularly anomalous epoch in which we live? The perennialist Rene Guenon argues that it is materialism–indeed, that modern civilization is a material–perhaps, to date, the–material civilization.
Rightly, he observes, in his acerbic The Crisis of the Modern World, a book first published in 1927 (that is, only 5 years after the end of WWI), that materialism could be said to “denote a conception according to which nothing else exists but matter and its derivatives” (The Essential Guenon, p. 28) (and others since then have followed in this train), but he goes on to say that he will offer up a different sort of definition, one grasped in terms of a certain mentalite. He expounds:
This state of mind is one that consists in more or less consciously putting material things, and the preoccupations arising out of them, in the first place, whether these preoccupations claim to be speculative [e.g., about the nature of cosmology] or purely practical [consider wealth, status, pleasures, and so on]; and it cannot be seriously disputed that this is the mentality of the immense majority of our contemporaries. (Ibid, p. 29)
A couple of things, at least, are noteworthy about this stunning passage. First of all, Guenon, unwilling to abstract us from materialism by speaking of matter being fundamental, throws it right in our faces: this is how you think; this is what you see; this is how you behave. You think in terms of material objects, you feel in a sentimental way (that is, you’re moved, in dewy-eyed ways, by sights, sounds, tear-jerking stories, lower impulses, and so on), you see numbers, you crave financial success, and you strive for more of the same. And, indeed, you are not alone: this is a collective state of mind, a collective way of seeing.
Second of all, for Guenon, it doesn’t matter whether the person in question is Richard Dawkins, who’s keen to reduce everything to evolution (that is, to the generation and transformation of matter) or any guy on the street griping about how much he pays in taxes. Both only care about stuff, sophisticatedly or naively understood. It’d be wise for you to check yourself now: isn’t what Guenon is saying directly applicable to you?
But Guenon is not yet done with his indictment of material civilization, for, at this point, he appeals, as my father used to do when I was a kid, to the apparently immediate force of “common sense.” He writes:
“[C]ommon sense” consists in not going beyond the things of this earth, as well as in ignoring all that does not make immediate practical appeal. In particular, it is “common sense” that sees only the world of the senses as real, and that admits of no knowledge other than the one that comes from the senses. (p. 33).
We’re beginning to smell a profound anti-intellectualist, not to say also an anti-heart-centric, conception that will burst forth in a pat empiricism (“If I can’t touch it, then it probably ain’t so”), a smug pragmatism (“What’s the use of this whole sacred poetry thing already?”), and, not the least, a flattening out of reality.
That flattening out is most palpable in what he’ll elsewhere call “the reign of quantity” and what, still in The Crisis of the Modern World, will amount to an obvious, and obviously limited, viewpoint which is decidedly humanistic or anthropocentric. He concludes that in this dispensation there is–nay, there can apparently be–“no reality higher than the human” (p. 41).
Our fixation on material objects, it seems, is at one with our fixation of ourselves, a kind of human species-wide narcissism.
II. Total Work and the Goods Life
Almost 100 years after the writing of The Crisis of the Modern World, we find ourselves in a position to observe two significant developments in material civilization. The first I began writing about in 2017; it goes by the name of Total Work, a term I borrow from the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. The second is mentioned, if only in passing, in Brad Gregory’s fine piece of research on the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath–namely, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.
Total Work is a total pseudo-philosophy or false philosophy, one anchored in the belief that work is the alpha and omega, that it is the first and that it shall also be the last. Still today, some five years after I began writing about the subject and about one year after I ceased doing so in public, I find it disheartening that someone at all, let alone someone like me, needs to emphasize, again and again, the absurdity of putting work, as well as the fruits of work, in such a central place not just in one’s own life but also in society at large. In a very specific sense, it is an utterly foolish thing to do, for in so placing it this pursuit cuts us off from the realization, as I’ll discuss later on, that this sacrifice amounts to the forgetfulness of our highest spiritual aspirations. To repeat: such a move is unwise as well as profane, idolatrous–one might even say heretical.
For we can’t have it both ways: we can’t put work in the first place and also realize our reason for being in this lifetime. Total Work knows this, however, and so it lies by saying that our highest reason for being is to work. Hence the endless talk of “callings,” of “vocations,” of “finding and using your gifts,” of realizing your “higher purpose,” and so on is all a bunch of bunk, nonsense, claptrap, hocus pocus, pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo. This is, in brief, some super-fucked up shit!
I turn now to the consumption side of the material civilizational equation. In 1899, American sociologist Thorstein Veblen published his The Theory of the Leisured Class. The “leisure class,” he saw, flexed their social power and status through sophisticated optics. Their distance from the working class was starkly visible in their antipathy toward anything smacking of work. Wealth bought them time and possessions, and both allowed them to show themselves off. Rather than simply having portraits painted of them, they themselves could become the portraits worthy of the admiration, and the envy, of others. They were, in a sense, what they wore.
This is “bling,” and, no doubt, it’s still with us today. But I don’t think, among younger generations anyway, that this is how the goods life most perniciously shows up at this stage of capitalism. In lieu of privileging the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, younger people are clinging onto “experiences”: the best goods–still material I must point out–are experiences to be pursued, consumed, shared, and résumé-d. This is not, as the Indian sage Nisargadatta would have it, anything close to authentic spirituality nor is it a genuine spiritual path. Instead, it’s “spiritual materialism,” the term Trungpa Rinpoche used in his Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and hence, by my lights, is nothing but the building up of a pseudo-spiritual CV on behalf of the puffed-up ego.
Don’t overlook the bind we’re in, the vice grip that you’re in: on one side is the hollowness of Total Work–of being an “agent” seeking to bring about “maximum positive social impact” or of some “profound transformation” — while on the other is the goods life whose point is to optimize for as many and as varied “peak experiences” as possible.
What a fantastic, phantasmagoric deadend!
III. Modernity as Purgatory
With a view to concentrating deeply on the particular state of modernity, I turn now to four pregnant lines from the opening prayer of the Quran, a prayer recited daily in Arabic by devout Muslims:
Guide us [Lord] upon the straight path,
the path of those on whom Thy Grace is,
not those on whom Thine anger is,
nor those who are astray.
This translation comes from Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s book on Sufism, the title of which is The Garden of Truth: The Visions and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. In his interpretation of these lines, Nasr brings out the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human life:
Our existential situation [he writes] can be further clarified by recourse to geometrical symbolism. We are situated at the point of the intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes of a cross. We have a choice to ascend the vertical axis and be among those “on whom Thy Grace is,” or to descend on the same axis into ever lower states of being as one of those “on whom Thine anger is.” Finally, we can wander along the horizontal line of the cross among “those who go astray.” Eschatologically these three possibilities correspond from a certain perspective to the paradisal, infernal, and purgatorial states.
His last reference, of course, is to Dante’s La Divina Commedia. In my view, modernity does not relegate us to the inferno but to a purgatorial state.
This purgatorial time, I submit, is characterized most overtly by a sense of pathlessness. We modern Westerners have been led astray and many of us remain astray, all the while without knowing any better. If we’re fortunate, then something in life may throw us asunder so that we may discover just how totally lost and unaccountably confused we truly are. If not, we shall continue to wander about heedlessly, blindly, unconsciously, automatically.
In this connection, I’m reminded of a powerful passage from Peter Kingley’s book called, simply, Reality:
The expression [to wit, being “totally at a loss”] is built around exactly the same word used to describe the state in which Socrates plunged the people he spoke with: aporia or “pathlessness.” Aporia, just like amechania, is the state of utter helplessness. It describes the nightmare of finding yourself in the impossible situation where no path leads to where you are and no path leads from it. All of a sudden you are trapped, lost. No conceivable plan or trick will help. You see no way out of this routelessness.
May you find yourself routeless so that the path can, out of grace, open up to you.
One impediment to recognizing our pathlessness are the pseudo-paths on offer in material civilization. All three can be reduced to a “preoccupation with material objects” even though each gains in greater sophistication.
These pseudo-paths, which I borrow from Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions and which are not called “pseudo” in the book, are:
- The pseudo-path of pleasure
- The pseudo-path of worldly success, and
- The pseudo-path of service to others
I quote Smith at great length:
We can describe the typical experience of this second type [namely, that concerned with worldly success]. The world’s visible rewards still attract them strongly. They throw themselves into enjoyment, enlarging their holdings and advancing their status. But neither the pursuit nor the attainment brings true happiness. Some of the things they want they fail to get, and this makes them miserable. Some they get and hold onto for a while, only to have them suddenly snatched away, and again they are miserable. Some they both get and keep, only to find that… they do not bring the joy that was expected. Many experiences that thrilled at first pall on the hundredth. Throughout, each attainment seems to fan the flames of new desire; none satisfies fully; and all, it becomes evident, perish with time. Eventually, there comes over them the suspicion that they are caught on a treadmill, having to run faster and faster for rewards that mean less and less (The World’s Religions, p. 18)
Don’t be misled by his treadmill analogy. Perhaps more often, each pseudo-path founders and ultimately fails due to boredom or ennui: the taste for pleasure becomes, ten thousand times later, insipid; the striving after more success turns into futility; the ego-centric service to others is revealed as just another way to keep score.
How tragic all this is. Just more stuff of a more sophisticated nature, none of which satisfying ultimately and each and all leaving us out of sorts, listless, gnawing, or benumbed.
V. Religio and Sacred Knowledge
We’re left with a stark choice: continue to be pathless or pseudo-pathless or open widely to religion.
Yes, I just used the word religion, for religio, from the Latin, refers to binding–or, really, rebinding–man to God, and this is precisely what’s needed more than ever today.
Consider that embedded within any genuine religion is the spiritual path. The point of the spiritual path is to bring about sacred knowledge or sacred love. I only touch on the former in this talk.
As the Dalai Lama often says, “Everybody wants to be happy; no one wants to suffer.” Who can disagree unless he or she begs the question by assuming knowledge of the nature of happiness?
Now, I define happiness as whatever it is that we ultimately seek. But whatever it is that we ultimately seek must meet at least two conditions: (i) that the “object” be permanent and (ii) that it be complete. If it’s not permanent, then it’s transient, and our souls cannot be satisfied by transience–or what Hindus and Buddhists both call samsara. I invite you to contemplate again the inherent problem with the pseudo-paths already discussed. And if it’s incomplete, then, as the Buddha saw, it will necessarily generate selfish craving, or tanha, and that selfish craving is, as the Rolling Stones sang, such that “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Hence, there is no way of getting around these two necessary conditions save on pain of half-hearted, limp-wristed acquiescence to nihilism.
But then–note this well–only God, or what is the same thing, the Ultimate, the Real, is permanent and complete.
Therefore, what we ultimately seek is God. That is, the only way to be abidingly happy is to be one with God. Happiness, defined a second time with greater specificity, is nothing but knowledge or love of God.
The path to God is, as Frithjof Schuon has observed, at once metaphysical-cosmological and eschatological. Metaphysics is, in Guenon’s words, “the science of the Universal”: the Principle, the Absolute, the Beyond-being, the Unconditioned, the One without a second. Cosmology, from the vantage point of esoteric religion, describes the manifestation of the Absolute in and as the Universe, or Nature. We might say that the metaphysical-cosmological points to the “descent” of the Transcendent into, and as, the immanent. God is throwing us a bone, so to say. Meanwhile, eschatology, the ascent, is the way home or the liberation from all that ails us, the knowledge that unbinds and frees us totally.
Therefore, we need both: we need both a theoretical understanding of the nature of reality (“the descent”) as well as the deep, intuitive, experiential knowledge that “there is no god but God; that there is no real but Real” (“the ascent”).
Together, these comprise sacred knowledge, and it is sacred knowledge that is ananda–the Sanskrit word for abiding peace beyond words.
VI. A Basic Choice
In a word, the conclusion of my argument can be regarded as a basic choice between embracing nihilism and knowing God. This is a choice I present to you, to each of you.
I find inspiration for bringing us back to our roots in the writings of the late perennialist Fritjof Schuon. In a documentary on her husband, Catherine Schuon sums up his intention in the following way:
“[Schuon’s] function in the world is really to bring people back to practice their religion . . . to bring them back to a path that leads to God. . . . [M]any people have gone back and practiced their religion very seriously after having read his books. He wants to help us to go back to where we belong.
I too would like to “help us to go back to where we belong.”
VII. Two Very Practical Recommendations
In closing, I’d like to offer you two very practical recommendations. The first pertains to modern hubris: don’t make the mistake of believing that you can make up some form of a la carte spirituality on your own. This is not only the ego talking; it’s also especially dangerous.
Which brings me, quite naturally, to my second recommendation. If you were raised in a religious household and if, upon graduating from high school or college, you fancied yourself an agnostic or an atheist, then you’d do well, provided your heart has been opened, to return to your religio and to give it an honest try this time. If you were raised Jewish, then return to Judaism; if Catholic or Protestant, then to Catholism or Protestantism; if Muslim, then to Islam; if Buddhist, then to Buddhism; if Hindu, then to Hinduism. And so on. You might as well begin by seeing, with fresh eyes, whether this religion articulates a higher purpose, whether it makes sense of life’s Basic Questions.
Later on, you may discover that it doesn’t set you on the path, yet were that to be your well-reasoned conclusion, then at least you’d have settled the matter through the use of introspection as well as through genuine participation. Besides, that conclusion will then helpfully point you to a religion that may be more suitable for you at this stage of your life. Remember, though, the question is not, “What has this religion to offer you?” but instead, “What have you to give to this religion?” In short, don’t be stubborn and don’t be selfish.
If, however, you were raised in a fundamentalist household and, with reasonable reservations, you cannot justify returning to it, then I can do no better than to recommend that you take up Zen. You might think, here at the end of my talk, that I’m evangelizing, but, in truth, I’m not since I’m actually a Vedantin at heart. I recommend Zen for the simple reason that it will allow you to learn how, through zazen, to sit on a cushion, to become quiet, and, for the time being, not to worry about theoretical expositions of the kind briefly sketched above. It’s not surprising that Zen was so appealing to a good number of Catholics and Jews after it came to the US in the 1950s, for what it presented was an opening, through solitude and silence, to the Great Mystery that we, for lack of a better word, call God.