Sunday, March 07, 2010

Maximizing Our Potential with Rollo May 10

In his chapter entitled The Creative Conscience Dr Rollo May argues that religion often offers refuge for neurotics. These "neurotic uses" of religion, he believes, are devices by which the individual avoids having to face his own loneliness and anxiety. Such religious neuroses seek to repress the fact that deep down in the individual the human person is basically alone - he/she must make their own choices alone, choose their own direction in life and eventually die alone.

An Insight into the Classics:

A classic, according to May, is one whose moral or ethical import is just as important today as it was when that classic was written.  Let's listen to Rollo May's own words here:

This is what the classics in literature, or ethics or any other field, should do for one.  For the essence of a classic is that it arises from such profound depths in human experience that, like the works of Isaiah,, or Oedipus, or the way of Lao-Tzu it speaks to us who live centuries later in vastly different cultures as the voice of our own experience, helping us to understand ourselves better and enriching us by releasing echoes within ourselves that we may not have known were there.  (May, op. cit., p. 156)
Our author, I believe, was a personal friend of the contemporary theologian, Paul Tillich.  Indeed, May borrowed and built upon many of the ideas put forward by Tillich.  One such borrowing undoubtedly is his contention that real religion is whatever a particular individual takes to be his/her "ultimate concern."  These are Tillich's terms, and May uses them aptly here.  Then, speaking about the nature of such an understanding of religion, he gives us a rich insight into its psychology: "The point we wish to emphasize is that psychologically religion is to be understood as a way of relating to one's existence." (Ibid., p. 158)

The centrality of Wonder:

I was brought up on a philosophy of wonder.  Who was it said, "philosophy begins in wonder and ends in wisdom" ?  I find that Aristotle said the first clause in this sentence, that philosophy begins in wonder.  I cannot find who added the second part.  I am also quite taken by the following quotation from the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead: "Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains." Then I also was enthralled by the works, both poems and prose, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who recounts somewhere that when he was a young lad his father used to bring him out along the lanes in the darkness to look at the night sky.  He said that his mind became "habituated to the vast."  I also fell in love with this phrase - the sheer wonder of the vast and being overwhelmed by it.  I also remember the words of Kavanagh as a very young poet who proclaimed that "the little window" of his bedroom "let in the stars."  These were undoubtedly the stars of wonder where all philosophy begins.  Let us return to the words of Dr Rollo May here:

When one is able to relate creatively to the wisdom of his fathers in the ethical and religious tradition he finds that he discovers anew his capacity to wonder.  It is self-evident that the capacity for active, responsive wonder has been largely absent in modern society.  This is one side of the vacuity and emptiness which so many peoiple feel in our period. (Ibid., p. 158)
Then May quotes the famous lines from Immanuel Kant: "Two things incline the heart to wonder, the moral law within and the starry night above."  (Quoted ibid., p. 158)  Now the capacity to wonder is not the sole province of religion.  It is also the the province of all creative artists, as well as scientists at their most creative.  May continues to argue that those "who take a rigid view either of religious or scientific truth become more dogmatic and lose the capacity to wonder..." (Ibid.,  158)  Wonder, then, is the absolute opposite to cynicism, and is indeed a function of what one holds to be of ultimate meaning and value in life.  Wonder, May argues, is also akin to humility.  He then goes on to relate all of this to conscience:

We wish thus to emphasise the positive aspects of conscience - conscience as the individual's method of tapping wisdom and insight within himself, conscience as an "opening up," a guide to enlarged experience. (Ibid., p. 161)
The human being values all the things he holds dear in life - love for his family and children, love for knowledge and wisdom and all the values bestowed upon him by his culture.  May points out that what we really value are all those things we experience as related to our activities in life, and certainly not a verbal discussion of them. (See ibid., p. 163).  He quotes the Zarathustra of Nietzsche that man should really be called "the valuator,"  and by valuing things we are in fact creating them.

Finally, in this chapter, May has some insightful things to say about art:

A picture is never beautiful if it is not honest, and to the extent that it is honest, that is, represents the immediate, deep and original perceptions and experience of the artist, it will have at least the beginnings of beauty. (Ibid., 167)

To be continued

Sopra ho messo un'altra foto che ho presa nei musei vaticani, febbraio, 2010.

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