Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Pursuit of Authenticity

Many years ago when this author was at college he had a wonderful director for his master’s thesis, one Rev Dr. Brian McNamara, S.J.  Brian was an inspiration as he taught me how to read with an extra edge, or, if you prefer with purpose and focus.  He was a wonderful scholar to whom I owe a lot of my critical abilities.  Anyway, Brian was steeped in the existentialists as well as many other wonderful theologians and philosophers.  One of the words quite often on his lips was that word most favoured of the existentialists, i.e., “authenticity.”


This term is used also in psychology and the philosophy of art as well as in existentialist philosophy.  Authenticity is basically the degree to which one is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, despite all the pressures the world of external living imposes upon us.  Authenticity to the mind of this writer at least, is all about coming to grips with who one really is in oneself, with a sense of personal identity.  Essentially, it is for me, summed up in the great Socratic motto: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  By this, Socrates meant that we should be beings who are always in pursuit of what is true and liberating of who we really are inside.  In the philosophy of art, "authenticity" describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist's self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or even commercial worth.  Most artists, worth their salt, would not prostitute their talent (or soul) for anything as inauthentic as “filthy lucre.”

The great Walter Arnold Kaufmann (1921-1980), the German-American philosopher, translator, and poet is quite rightly credited with popularising the writing and the ideas of the existentialist writers such as Dostoevsky Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Sartre, Marcel, and Camus, though he favoured the first four of these over the last three. 

For these writers, the conscious self, to be an authentic self-creation must come to terms with being in a material world – often a very hostile one indeed.  In this encounter with the external world this conscious self meets external forces and influences which are very different if not inimical to the health of the real self.  Therefore, authenticity is one way in which the self acts and changes in response to these pressures.  Such authenticity then is all about being true to the inner or real self, to the creative urges within one, to the dreams and visions of the soul.  As the reader will see, my prose is becoming somewhat flowery because language begins to strain against its very own limits when we begin to speak about these concepts.  Can the the “needs of one’s inner being” be met in modern life?

A Film about Authenticity:

At this stage I should like to offer here a brief review of the film Revolutionary Road which I went to see with my brother Patrick last evening.  I was impressed by the wonderful acting of Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio and enthralled and gripped by the story.  In short this film is all about the struggle for authenticity as characterised in the female leading character as she struggles both with her own and with the greater  inauthenticity of her husband’s character. 

Some Background:

Revolutionary Road is the first novel of author Richard Yates and it was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962 in the U.S.A., and In 2005 the novel was chosen by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present – no mean achievement, indeed, for any novel. In the October 1999 issue of the Boston Review,Yates was quoted on his central theme: "If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy." The Wheelers' frustrations and yearnings for something better represent the tattered remnants of the American Dream.

The Storyline: The story is simple but gripping because it is so true to life. It's 1955. Frank and April Wheeler, in the seventh year of their marriage, are living a life that appears to most as being near perfect. They live in the Connecticut suburbs with two young children. Frank commutes to New York City where he works in an office job while April stays at home as a housewife. But they're not happy. April has forgone her dream of becoming an actress, and Frank hates his job - one where he places little effort - although he has never figured out what his passion in life is. One day, April suggests that they move to Paris - a city where Frank visited during the war and loved, but where April has never been - as a means to rejuvenate their life. April's plan: she would be the breadwinner, getting a lucrative secretarial job for one of the major international organizations, while Frank would have free time to find himself and whatever his passion. Initially sceptical, Frank ultimately agrees to April's plan. However, their beautiful visionary plan becomes unstuck as Frank becomes more caught up in his work, succumbing to his boss’s praises and as April becomes more and more depressed. 

And so the film follows the story quite faithfully, I believe, as I have not read the book.  Yeats had this to say of the book’s title, in an interview with DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark for the Winter, 1972 issue of Ploughshares:

I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.  (See this link here for the source of this quotation: Revolutionary Road)

Hence, this film Revolutionary Road is a superb film insofar as it deals so splendidly with the conflict at the heart of this drama viz., the conflict between the authentic and the inauthentic at the heart of man.  Therefore, we are back to the question I raised above in my first few paragraphs -  Can the the “needs of one’s inner being” be met in modern life?   This film suggests that it cannot.  Have we sold our souls to the devil of modern capitalism?  It would seem so.  In this sense, this film is very relevant to our contemporary world as we are now entering the greatest worldwide recession or depression we have known since 1929.  The sparkling jewels promised by capitalism may really be only tawdry trinkets of a very questionable value indeed. The acting in this film is superb, as is the film script which, I should imagine is fairly loyal to the original novel.  The dialogue is superb and one can feel oneself moved as if one is present at a live performance of a play.  Here’s a small taste of the dialogue from the film:

April Wheeler: Don't you see? That's the whole idea! You'll be able to do what you should have been aloud to do seven years ago, you'll have the time. For the first time in your life, you'll have the time to find out what it is you actually want to do. And when you figure it out, you'll have the time and the freedom, to start doing.
Frank Wheeler: This doesn't seem very realistic.
April Wheeler: No, Frank. This is what's unrealistic. It's unrealistic for a man with a fine mind to go on working year after year at a job he can't stand. Coming home to a place he can't stand, to a wife who's equally unable to stand the same things. And you know what the worst part of it is? Our whole existence here is based on this great premise that we're special. They we're superior to the whole thing. But we're not. We're just like everyone else! We bought into the same, ridiculous delusion. That we have to resign from life and settle down the moment we have children. And we've been punishing each other for it.

This film is good because it asks the right questions about the values we hold in our so called modern society.  Are we really true to ourselves, to our inner values, to our sacred dreams and private hopes?  How far can we or should we realise them? The film does highlight the essential loneliness and alienation of modern humanity.  However, we can also ask the question of how far we can reconcile our dreams with the reality of our workaday lives – how far can they be reconciled?  Surely there is a middle ground?  Is that what psychotherapy in all its various forms is really about?  To that extent have they replaced traditional religions in attempting that reconciliation?  Where can we see ourselves in this film?  In how far are we being really authentic and congruent human beings?  All these questions are worth asking.  To that extent this film is so worth seeing.  Be prepared to be moved and indeed to think and reflect on life.  That’s the price this film asks and the only price worth paying! 

Above one of the official pictures advertising the film Revolutionary Road (2008) which features the wonderful actors Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet. The film is directed by Sam Mendes, Winslet's husband.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 3

Section 7: Science’s Irrational Origins:

Once again Gray surpasses himself with the paradoxical nature of his titles.  He really does want to provoke us into questioning our presuppositions and suppositions.  He asks whether science really is the embodiment of rational enquiry as its proponents would have us believe.  Again Gray cuts to the point is nothing if not provocative:

The origins of science are not in rational enquiry, but in faith, magic and trickery.  (Op.cit., 21)

Without ‘chaos’ there would be no knowledge.  Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress.  Realities like intrigue, jealousy, envy, prejudice, conceit and passion opposed reason and forced it to make progress.  The greatest scientists like Galileo, Newton,Tyche Brahe and Johannes Kepler were all believers in God

As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity.  Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method.  Not only the origins but the progress of science comes from acting against reason. (Ibid., 23.)

Section 8: Science as a Remedy for Anthropocentrism:

I remember well when I first heard the term “anthropocentric.”  I was a young student of 18 in first year college and was studying Scripture, and our teacher, Rev. Dr. Michael Maher explained to us that when God was presented as “walking in the garden in the cool of the evening,” that this was an example of anthropocentrism, painting the godhead as a human being or anthropos.  Humankind needs to make sense out of the world.  The ancient writers of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament sought to make sense of their world and in so doing they sought to impose an order on it.  Indeed their order was a mythic order – a great tale of creation and later of the fall of humankind to give some meaning and order to human affairs as they saw it in those early times.

Here Gray reminds us that such leading scientists like Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg point out that world is far from being an orderly cosmos:

It is a demi-chaos that human can hope to understand only in part.  Science cannot satisfy the human need to find order in the world.  The most advanced physical sciences suggest that causality and classical logic may not be built into the nature of things.  Even the most basic feature of our ordinary experience may be delusive.  (Ibid., 23)

Quantum Mechanics reminds us that we (the observers) change what we observe.


Section 9:  Truth and Consequences:

Gray reminds us yet again that Humanism is a Religion, as if we needed reminding.  Yet, I suppose the maverick nature of his provocative views would allow for such a repetition.  Humanism believes in “truth,” as if this entity existed somewhere.  Once again humanism’s belief in truth is yet again an unacknowledged expression of faith.  And so the progress of this faith can be expressed thus:

Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free.  he never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together.  He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity.  The result is modern humanism.  (Ibid., 24)

I have always unquestioningly accepted Socrates’ great dictum which was repeated so often during my years at college that I swallowed it whole.  That dictum is the famous one: “The unexamined life is not worth living.’  Gray even puts a big question mark under this by stating that the examined life may not be worth living either.  Indeed he proposes that here there is a trace of ancient or archaic religious belief – insofar as Socrates claimed to hear an “inner voice” or “the voice of God.”  In this he was guided by a “daimon” or an inner oracle or angel power which he followed.  This, Gray argues quite cogently is a trace of shamanic practices.  (See ibid., 25)  In other words European rationalism may have been born in mystical experience.  However, [m]odern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.” (ibid., 25)

I loved Gray’s outright dismissal of memes as a ridiculous concept.  Once again he sees this proposal as one which illustrates man’s illusions and delusions of grandeur; his sheer and unadulterated hubris and his sheer belief in his own ego.  Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way as genes do.  This theory supposes or proposes that the fittest memes survive:

Unfortunately memes are not genes.  There is no mechanism of selection  in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution. (ibid., 26)

A cursory look at history is all that is needed to realise that this theory is piffle because look at what The Roman Catholic Church, the Muslim religion, The Jewish Religion, The Nazis under Hitler and then Stalin did  and these winners were not the ones with the great memes.

An interest in the truth is not necessary for survival or reproduction.  They Gray cuts us to the quick by stating: “Deception is common among primates and birds.” (Ibid., 27)  Truth, he avers, has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error.  Ponder that now!  Again he cuts through all the shibboleths to state that the “uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves.”  There is a lesson here for all of us.  Human beings are animals seeking to protect their offspring and often they are very irrational in this pursuit.  The Enlightenment is a gospel of despair if it were to be true to being totally rational, in accepting the irrationality of humankind and the absurdity of hope or faith.

Section 10: A Pascal for the Enlightenment:  

Pascal admitted that we human beings need our illusions to give us hope and meaning.  In short such illusions do, in fact, keep us going.  We must “stupefy our reason and fortify our faith in mankind.”

Section 11: Humanism versus Naturalism:

Here I was spell-bound by Jacques Monod’s beautiful, if not poetic, prose.  Gray quotes him at length.  Monod was one of the founders of molecular biology.  This biologist argued that life is indeed a fluke – we are just a lucky draw in the lottery of life.  Let me quote a little of Monod’s wonderful words:

[Humankind] must at last awake from his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation.  He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering and his crimes. (Quoted ibid., 30)

According to Monod we are the lucky species among the millions of others as we know that we are an accident through our being self-conscious.  The Christians who argued so forcefully against Darwin feared that it left humanity looking so insignificant.  Gray’s message to us is to grow up and realise that we are in deed insignificant in the scheme of things.

Section 12: Straw Dogs:

This section repeats the very title of the book.  Once again Gray reminds us that Humanism is a Secular Religion.  Yes, John, we’ve got the message.  Here, he gives us an insight into the Gaia theory of James Lovelock which I have already mentioned in my last post.  Gray points out, interestingly that Lovelock’s theory of Gaia is very much built on pre-Christian or archaic or primordial religion, viz., animism.  Humanism believes in the myth of progress, a mere unreflecting re-presentation of the Christian myth while the world of the Gaia scientist is one very much of the animists where we are creatures of the very slime of the earth whence we first crawled.  If the more orthodox humanists clash with the Gaia humanists, it is merely a collision of myths.

Critics of the Gaia theory say they reject it because it is unscientific.  The truth is they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.  (Ibid., 34)

Above a picture of the track marks of some agricultural vehicle in the mud of the Phoenix Park, February 2009.

The Hubris of Humankind 2

Section 4:  Why Humanity will never master Technology:

As I have already pointed out Gray continues to remind his readers that we are animals, and prefers the title “human animal” to “human being.”  One can understand why he does, given that the second term is way more abstract and conceptual while the former is considerably more concrete.  Also he reminds us on an on-going basis that we have considerable over-rated our importance in the universe.  With his background in philosophy and politics, he reminds us that of the 200 or so sovereign states in the world that most are unstable.  Why?  Well the human animal is at base greedy, selfish and power-hungry – my words, not Gray’s.  He describes most of these states as being “rusted through with corruption.” (op. cit., 12)  One can only agree with him.

Now Gray contends that it is this quite large number of sovereign states that makes technology ungovernable.  We only has to think momentarily of states like India and Pakistan having access to nuclear weapons.  Then, of course, there is the threat of the design of new viruses for the use in genocidal weapons – and this does not require as much money as nuclear weapons.

Then Gray mentions something I never heard of before, viz., knowledge-enabled mass destruction, known by the acronym KMD.  Then there is the ethical problem of how biological weapons can be kept out of the hands of the terrorist groups.  In effect Gray is here rehearsing the old argument that humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

It would seem to this writer, that is to this blogger writing here, that ethics and morals do not evolve naturally.  They have to be worked out painfully.  By this I mean, that it is only in the wake of the consequences of evil that humankind wakes up to its base desires and the suffering caused by them, e.g., only after the evils of slavery have universal equality of all humans themselves been recognised and only in the wake of mass genocide was the declaration of human rights thought up and promulgated.  Ethics and morals grow as a result of reflecting soberly and sincerely on humankind’s unbridled instincts for destruction.  In the words of Gray, which finish this section, we read:

Technical progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature.  Unfortunately, that problem is insoluble.  (ibid., 15)

Section 5:  Green Humanism:

I’ve got to admit that I consider myself to be in Green in terms of ecology, and to some small extent a republican, but not on the greener fringes of the latter.  Be that as it may, once again Gray puts paid to my illusions.  He reminds us clearly that most Green thinkers offer yet another version of humanism, not an alternative to it.  If humanism is another religion, then it follows that being Green is another one yet.

We may talk about human societies.  Yet, what are we but a greater and grander example of ant and bee societies.  I find it difficult to disagree with Gray.  He quotes the scientist Lynn Margulis and her scientist son Dorian Sagan thus:

We are a part of an intricate network that comes from the original takeover of the Earth.  Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.  (Quoted ibid., 16)

It would seem to this blogger that the Greens are yet another “religious group” in the sense that they propose that they are the stewards of creation, as outlined before them by the Christian interpretation of Creation and Redemption.  Yet again Gray’s black outlook is sobering – the notion that human action can save humankind and/or the planet is absurd.  Humankind is part of nature, not above it.  We are equal to the animals, not above them.  Once again Gray’s prose is clear: “The humanist sense of the gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration.” (ibid., 17)

I like Gray’s term “biophilia” or love of all living things.  Only when we have such love, namely a love for all the living things of the earth, ourselves included, will we be really and truly our true selves.  Again this latter sentence is mine and its import mine, not Gray’s.

Section 6: Against Fundamentalism – Religious and Scientific:

Religion has wielded mostly unopposed authority in human affairs for such a long period in human history.  Now this authority is waning and waning.  However, its authority has now been ceded to the sciences.  Again, Gray points out that the cost of this ceding of power is of making human life accidental and insignificant.  In a wonderful flourish of words our author sees religious fundamentalists as “symptoms of the disease they pretend to cure.” (ibid., 18)  A wonderful turn of phrase, that makes one think – Gray at his provocative best.  Science serves two needs in humankind: (i) hope and (ii) censorship.  Now hope, of course, you’ve already guessed it, is a religious virtue which has now been ceded to science.  People cling to the hope of progress.  This isn’t a genuine belief at all, but rather a fear of what will happen if they give up this belief. 

Then gray reminds us more bleakly again that the political projects of the twentieth-century have failed.  Science gives us hope because the political counterparts have failed.  In another swipe at science Gray reminds the reader that orthodox science acts like the church did against heretics or maverick thinkers. (Orthodox medicine versus Freud; orthodox Darwinians versus Lovelock etc.)  Let’s not detach science from its human needs and make of it something that is not natural but transcendental.  He finishes this section with his typical flourish:

To think of science as the search for truth is to renew a mystical faith, the faith of Plato and Augustine, that truth rules the world, that truth is divine.  (ibid., 20)

Above I have iploaded a picture I took of the coast at Portrane Co. Dublin this February.

The Hubris of Humankind

These few posts these days are my reflections on reading that wonderful little modern classic Straw Dogs by that wonderfully provocative philosopher John Gray.  Of course, we all love provocateurs because they are able to shake us out of our reverie and out of our complacency.  And John Gray is a philosophe provocateur supreme.  Chapter one is called simply The Human and is subdivided into twelve short subdivisions, each hammering home a specific point.

Section 1: Science versus Humanism:  Under this head Gray defines humanism succinctly:  “Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress.  To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals…” (Op.cit., 4)  His main contention is that humankind has vastly overrated itself.  Again and again Gray reminds us that we are human animals, and indeed we need this frequent reminder.  From Biblical times, we have all been overwhelmed, if not inundated, with the belief that we humans are the veritable summit of creation, set there by a powerful Creator God, and from that summit we could and can lord it over all the other animals.  For sure, the Jewish religion, followed by the other monotheistic world religions, Christianity and Islam have always taught us that we are the stewards, rather than the lords of creation.  Whatever about these theological and moral tenets, humankind has always abused its power over all of creation, over our fellow creatures (always deemed to be lesser creatures – what’s now called specism – on a par, indeed, if you think about it, with racism).  Anyway, here I have described the religious myth of humanity.  This myth, then, saw humankind as going its own way, having sinfully  rejected the innocence of Eden for the sinful world of experience.  Again, within this myth, he had to work his way through sweat and pain to gain some release from his sin until the coming of the Messiah or anointed one who would redeem humankind from its great sin of rebellion against a loving God through the very death of that Messiah.  This was and is the theology of redemption/salvation.  This in a nutshell is the Myth of Religion.  For Gray, Humanism has an equal and an unacknowledged myth, packaged as scientific truth, namely the myth of indefinite or linear progress.  It is, of course, acknowledged as a truth of almost axiomatic standing.  However, it is also unacknowledged as a myth equal in standing to the religious one. Let us listen to Gray’s succinct, direct and clear words:

Most people today think that they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny.  This is faith not science… ibid., 3

Species cannot control their fates… 3

In Victorian times there was [a bitter controversy] between Christians and believers.  Today it is waged between humanists and the few that understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal… 4  (Needless to say Gray falls among the latter number.)

The human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive… 4

Darwin showed that humans are like other animals, humanists claim they are not… They renew one of Christianity’s most dubious promises – that salvation is open to all .  The humanist belief in progress is only a secular version of this Christian faith… 4

Christianity’s cardinal error – that human’s are different to other animals – has been given a new lease of life. [that is, in humanist belief]. … 4. 

Section 2: The Mirage of Conscious Evolution: In this section John Gray quotes one learned  contemporary Darwinian who believes that conscious control of human evolution is not only possible but also inevitable.  This scientist he quotes is E.O. Wilson, and the piece he quotes from this learned man reads like a piece of religious writing of the evangelical variety.  However, Gray is not too impressed with Wilson’s evangelism:

Yet the prospect of conscious human evolution he invokes is a mirage.  The idea of humanity taking charge of its destiny makes sense only if we ascribe consciousness and purpose to the species; but Darwin’s discovery was that species are only currents in the drift of genes.  The idea that humanity can shape its future assumes that it is exempt from this truth.  (Ibid., 5-6)

Section 3: Disseminated Primatemaia: This marvellously imaginative disease was one created by James Lovelock, that amazing scientist scientist, author, researcher, environmentalist, and futurist who lives in Devon, in the south west of England. He is known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, in which he postulates that the Earth functions as a kind of superorganism, and he proposes that  Gaia or Mother Earth is suffering from a plague of people, hence the above interesting heading:  Disseminated Primatemaia.  I note here that James Lovelock will be 90 this JulyThis maverick scientist even uses the term “human plague” in an effort to wake us up to over-population and to the havoc we as a species are wreaking on the earth and all the other species of animals.  Let’s listen here to Gray’s magic prose:

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialization, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions.  It is the consequence of an exceptionally rapacious primate.  Throughout all history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.  (Ibid., 7)

Now humans are rather like any other plague animal – say rabbits or rats.  However, they cannot destroy the earth, but they will definitely wreck the environment that sustains them.

To be continued.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of the sky at sunset over Portrane, County Dublin, February, 2009