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Culleny: The song remains the same

I read an essay recently by John Michael Greer in his blog, The Archdruid Report. It ends with this:

“(now) I’ll … return to the ordinary business of chronicling the decline and fall of industrial civilization.”

Ominously, the essay ends there after Greer has run through what he suggests are three effective ways to deal with “... the decidedly mixed bag that human existence hands us.” The Greeks, he says, tackled this mixed bag head-on in three of their schools of philosophy: Epicurean, Stoic and Platonic.

According to Greer, students of the philosopher Epicurus, Epicureans, start with the premise that life is better than death. Most of us would agree (some more grudgingly than others) while many — those who find their backs chronically against the wall — concur most heroically and press on with life anyway. But there are those who have an absolutist, otherworldly bent and simply do not value earthly lives, their own or others, so highly — suicide bombers, for instance, or fundamentalists longing for the “end days” and Armageddon. Epicureans do not long for end days and, by and large, most of the rest of us if given the option prefer to stay alive with as little TV-style blood-letting as possible.

The Epicureans focus on the pleasures life offers (but, as is typical in Greek philosophy, with moderation). This is expressed, Greer says, in the “… calm realism you … often seen in people who’ve been through hard times and come out the other side in one piece.” We in the contemporary First World, unlike people wrung dry in the Great Recession, find this view hard to adopt because we’ve been through “… an age of extravagance and excess.” We expect pleasure to be almost infinite. To help comprehend this, think wall-sized TVs with ultra-bass surround-sound, cars that parallel park on their own and landfills of waste the size of tiny Himalayas that dot our landscape: pleasure without moderation.

Another Greek view, which comes at life’s dark side from another angle, is called “Stoic.” Stoics realize that, good or bad, whatever happens, we’re here now so what are we going to do about it? We each must choose a response. Stoicism is an approach that recognizes the value of change and action (often at the risk of life) to rectify those aspects of life that are unjust, dangerous, absurd, etc. — not because this life has no value, but because it does and the risks involved in change are worth it, not only for ourselves but for others.

Digging heels in against change would not be the Stoic’s way according to Greer. By this standard, there are probably few Stoics in the tea party, the U.S. House of Representatives, on Wall Street, in extreme religious sects or among white supremacists where progress is often anathema. Among these groups, change is seen as a cramping of decadent me-first lifestyles, an assault upon the word of God or a slap in the face of belief in traditional racial or male superiority.

Finally, Greer gives us the Platonists. Plato imagined something beyond perception: a reality behind the perceived, a view which shares something of the magical thinking we find in religion and politics today. Aristocles, nicknamed Plato, taught that this reality is independent of human whim and wish.

Star-gazing astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington may have been loosely channeling Plato when he said, “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what,” which is suggestive of what Chinese poet Lao Tzu wrote 26 centuries earlier: “Heaven conforms to the Way (Tao). The Tao conforms to its own nature.”

I’m not a Platonist in a magical thinking sense, but may be in a scientific one, which is to say, if scientific method hypothesizes an invisible reality (such as “dark matter”) I’m more inclined to accept it than if it’s a claim of “revealed” truth. Why? Because science, in an attempt to understand that which changes (which is everything we experience), follows a rigorous experimental method designed to get past static “revelation.” The difference between this and a religious approach is that when science hits the wall, it says, “we don’t know but will continue trying. I like science’s structural humility.”

Scientists, when they hit the wall of the unknown, are, like all of us, left only with something like astrophysicist Eddington’s “something unknown is …” remark. Being a curious species, it’s frustrating not to know; and being a species which names, we must name it: God, Tao, The Unknown or Something.

In our time, philosophies and religions are at war. Maybe, as the Talking Heads sang, this is “the same as it ever was.” However, the singular difference is that the stakes are much more profound because our technology is magnificently more powerful and our willful ignorance more catastrophic.

When we have senators and congressmen who assume the attitudes of priests and shamans while enjoying fortunes built by scientific method, we have the symptoms of societal schizophrenia with all of schizophrenia’s delusions writ large. When we ignore the harm we’re doing to the planet and each other for the sake of our religious or ideological beliefs, dismissing the damage with ironically hopeful visions of a biblical apocalypse, we make more certain that we’ll have one — that may or may not be the same as it ever was but is profoundly more unacceptable.

Culleny lives in Shelburne Falls, works in construction, is a singer/songwriter, and has done commentary for National Public Radio. His email address is jimculleny@comcast.net.

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