An Essay on the Modern Problem of Living

As the old fears creep in, the tendrils of the mystical, the totally preserved anxieties of the ancient mystery religions transported into the present day, we question the foundations of our society. The pre-Christian terrors, the primeval fears of a world where we have all the complexity of raw phenomenon and experience, but with no notion of divine footing. This presents the essence of the modern problem – the world is more complex than ever before, which should lead to a flourishing, and yet it is only leading to fear.

The mystery can either be good or bad depending on the situation of the ego. The mystery is fluid, mercurial. It is the radical transformation of gender, the normalization of androgyny, the fantastic aesthetic elements of anime, the depraved and sublime dark comedy of 4chan and the internet’s gutters, and the deluge of perpetual news about a celebrity who translated marketing bravado into statecraft, and runs the most powerful empire in human history out of a country club in Florida.

The mystery is all these things and the threat of automation, the loss of nationhood, the loss of sovereignty, the pathetic attempts of austerity movements that promise sovereignty, the chaos of the political, personal and economic spheres all colliding and becoming an affirmation of the same basic ideas of unchanging and cyclical pain. But there is no going back. Once you see that we are at the tipping point of centuries of man’s blind faith in reason, and that all the old myths and the dying father are not enough for the whole future, that scientific rationalism has taken us to a place much riper for nihilism than the sheer confidence of church-state collusion, there is no going back. Instead of the Catholic Church, there is corporate-state collusion, and where the church once provided belief in higher selves implicit in the world, the corporate-state world provides no aesthetic, no pretense to divinity, no hope, only an enclosed material loop that resembles a nightmare.

The central questions of existence remain unanswered. And it is no easy thing to state them, but to my nearest approximation, I consistently return to a handful of questions that I see as the root of our suffering, the most painful core of our separation from fulfilling lives, but also questions that represent intractable situations which modern wisdom cannot even pretend to answer. My central questions are as follows:

Do we belong on this Earth, or is consciousness a stranger here? Are we conscious, reflecting beings only to follow nature’s dictates of our own free will, or must we rebel against its plans and create our own values? Is God a force that comes from outside the universe, or is God the universe itself, present everywhere, inside the world, self-contained? Where do our thoughts, and our reflective, creative powers, originate from? Do thoughts, ideas and archetypes shape us, or have we invented them? Have we created our symbols to navigate the world, or are our symbols impressed within us by nature, like genetic heritage? If we have created our symbolic life, can we create a new one, ruled by new symbols? Is it more righteous to accept the world and improve yourself, or to reject the world and focus outward? In the final analysis, is the God of the Old Testament, a cruel teacher, punisher of man for the sake of great development and eventual reward, our divine heritage, or a test to break free from? Must we burn our old world to create a new one, like we burn our old selves and resurrect our personality from the flames?

These questions all seem to me to be restatements of the same larger question: is God or Lucifer the hero of the story of creation? Is the serpent who presents the fruit of knowledge our true advocate, and our plunging into history, our creation of a man-made world that rejects the rules of nature, our true goal? And if this is our goal, is there free will? And of course, the very fact that we must ask this question, “is there free will”, is a source of great nihilism. When your ideas are in total opposition to your lived experience, you are necessarily a compromised being. There is no truth left in you. When you, who make decisions, are told by modern neuroscience to question your own free will, it creates a sense of fear that no philosophy can erase. It is akin to telling a black person, that despite their lived interpretation and analysis of their living conditions, that they have suffered no institutional racism, and only have themselves to blame. When the world of ideas contradicts the world of experience, the ground cracks beneath us. There is no ground anymore for being.

In the sciences, ideas contradict experience. We are told that our own consciousness, our own perception, our own exceptional ability to reflect upon the fact that we are seeing and breathing and feeling and suffering and enjoying, is a less real phenomenon than subatomic structures which hold no meaning, no reflection, no ability for creative genesis, no talent, no intelligence and no perception. If everything that we are and have ever felt is less real than the neurons and physical pathways of our material brains, then surely there is no value to individual life. Surely it seems not worth living, that it is only an illusion, a mirage over a crude material reality of charge, spin, attraction and repulsion. This ‘Science makes the world beautiful’, this shallow refrain of materialists such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins, or even the great Carl Sagan, is not taken to its fullest conclusions. In the final analysis of their worldview, we are meat machines who are orphaned by a world that has imbued us with a longing for something that is false, a longing embedded in a mode of existence that is false and circumstantial, and that our notion of ‘truth’ is never absolute, and only a convenient manifestation of the searching tools used by a computational brain to find new watering holes. Why faith is a concept that exists in the universe at all, in all its paradoxical implications, or hunger strikes for the sake of ephemeral ‘values’ are possible in the minds of apes, is merely an accident. In this worldview, the entire ‘great work’ of writing and thinking about being simply has no value. There is no destination, only a self-justifying circle. It leads us to the postmodern hell. If values themselves are an accident of being that reflect no real truths, only convenient tools for survival, representing the cunning serpent and not at all the elucidation of martyrdom and the sun, then scientific materialism devours itself and creates relativism, just as Christianity once devoured itself to create scientific materialism. The ideology of science rejects values by definition – they are not material. You cannot cut open a brain and discover values. The symbolic order transcends matter. Ah! Finally, the truth I have long been prodding at, hoping to break loose. My confession of my own beliefs: that the symbolic order transcends matter. The realm of numbers, myths, music and images transcends the realm of crude neurons and prefrontal cortexes, which exist in a different realm entirely than the realm of symbol, which is the realm of spirit, because our symbols for the spirit are our only present understanding of what spirit is. Accordingly, our notions of the spirit evolve, but is spirit static or does it evolve with them, watching us through the glass, a shapeshifter that responds to our thinking and becomes what we are? We are so naked and defenseless against the spirit. Our articulations, through stories, songs, poetry and speeches, are all we have to comprehend the spirit outside of raw feeling.

The spirit is the main contention of this age. Does it rest upon a mess of unfeeling matter, or infinite subjectivity, or is it something real and objective that exists outside the world? Perhaps all three, in some unholy trinity. Is the spirit capable of making decisions, inside matter, as the free will, outside of crude physical causation, outside the cage of all conscious decisions emerging from a synapse or a brain mechanism, a fantasy that leads neuroscientists to reject free will as an impossibility because all the physical world must be self-enclosed, and can allow no meddling by something as unknown as ‘spirit’ or ‘will’? Indeed, free will is incompatible with the scientific worldview. But if there is no free will, there is surely no meaning in life. At least, there is no meaning in the choices of faith, the choices of one’s career, the choices of how one spends their time, how one lives, what one believes, what one says…there is no meaning in life if there is no meaning in these choices. Notice I have excluded love, because it is never a choice. But maybe these were never choices in the first place, and merely expressions of God’s will. This determinism is the final resting point of both science and religion. The only difference is whether it is material or spiritual determinism. If science cannot apprehend how a brain makes a choice, if choice is the determined causal machinations of brain alone, then the spirit is denied, its will is denied, its values are an illusion, its discovery of objective mathematics was also the stumbling upon of a great useful hallucination, and science is the study of Maya, a world of illusion, of veils, of total falsehood.

Science plunges us into the mystery like nothing else. And this is why science has failed its purpose – to establish reason and scientific reasoning as the final ideology of history. And of course, it is irrefutable that Christianity created modern science. It was the Christian concept of logos, the Christian concept of immortal truth, of articulated logical truth, which was worth pursuing, the Christian foundations of systematic rational theology which became systematic rational science. It was the movement of Descartes, who had thought of spirit and self and soul as a shorthand for the Christian God, and defined it all as outside of the physical world, in his painful dualism, and narrowed the study of science purely to mechanistic things, like everything in the world that was not self, soul and God. Descartes defined thoughts and values as outside of the natural world, and as of the 17th century, had created the foundations for modern science. The objective and descriptive nature of science, not tainted by human subjectivity, symbols and values, was science’s claim to supremacy. And yet it was only because of Christian categorizing that modern science was ever able to be defined in this way. Soul and self were in the same category of God, and so were of no matter to science. They remain of no matter to science.

Christianity, in Descartes, sowed the seeds for the death of everything spiritual, subjective, and metaphysical. It was the accursed dualism which creates scientific materialism, and now scientific materialism places us back in the pre-Christian era – in total mystery. We are surrounded by dark matter and dark energy that we cannot understand. We are not ourselves, but phantoms without will conjured up out of the Earth, nothing but nervous systems on a bad ego trip. The philosophy of modern science is totally this dark, pre-Christian mystery religion, which affords us only systemic knowledge of an arcane world of physical, molecular, atomic interactions that exist outside of our perceptions, but are the source of all true reality. It is downright esoteric.

What, other than mysticism, is the source of reality? We have always lived in the mystery, only the history of competing structures of ideas, like Christianity and reason, markets and Marxism, have made us pretend that the final footing has been found, and now living a life in service of the True Ideology is all that is left. An advocate for reason, an advocate for nationalism, an advocate for the church, or an advocate for free trade, all these priesthoods are embarrassed and unclothed before the chill of their own ultimate shortcoming. There is no absolute Truth, there never was. There was no Yahweh, there was no rational materialism that put to bed the true nightmare of asking the question: from where do our values arise? Where do we see what is and conceive of a possible future, and posit what could be? Where is this notion of ‘becoming’ in the minds of apes, who have become digital shamans of industrial catastrophe where once we were apes gathering food in the plains of untamed chaos?

All answers for the mystery fall short. And yet, it is undeniable that there is a genuine mystery, and not merely a mistake of terms. There is a real, honest-to-God problem at the core of all this. There is something rational. There is not formless postmodern anxiety. There are rules to this thing, only the true rules will appear to us as cliffsides from the mist, approaching sailors gazing anxiously, who thought they had conquered all the world only to see that their problems were more complex than any of their ancestors had ever known. The level of complexity, too, has increased with time.

What is the point of individuals, seven billion of them? Why so many infinite renditions even among people of similar archetypes? Why are there now so many individuals, and with the digital world of the Internet, why are these individuals now composing a hive mind? Why has our individuality seemingly been ushered more and more internal, expressible only in more ironic and painful terms, suppressed and more profound and painful than ever before, as Dionysus predicted when he emerged from Nietzsche’s soul as a daemon at the end of Beyond Good and Evil?

Why is the entire world now a pressure cooker, a massive splintering, an era of chaos and a sense of profound loss, of burning bridges, of people who find it harder than ever to articulate their problems, because their problems are more immense and myriad than any generation prior has ever known? The more history that piles up beneath us, the more expectations rise for the future of the journey. The pile we sit on is impossibly large, and yet, no individual truly feels they can be fulfilled by it anymore. It is a lie simply to become a Christian and call the problem solved. In its dying days also is the satisfaction in merely studying the canon, the great work, and praising the Greeks as the perpetual source. All the old myths are not enough, and yet paradoxically, they are also the rooting we need. Everywhere, the dialogue between two ideas burns itself quickly, leaving neither alive. Competing notions kill each other prematurely and do not develop. We need to revive the past, but in an entirely new context, an entirely new aesthetic, a new understanding. We need to break totally with the past while keeping it with us as the source of all our strength. But who is this ‘we’? And do I not speak of the horrors of Bolshevism? What wisdom to take with us? What wisdom to condemn as detrimental and abandon? Because there is great wisdom in pessimistic and anti-human statements. “You have to accept the world before you can change it,” is itself an insane contradiction, a parody. And yet I believe it. Contradictions, religious paradoxes, appear more attractive than ever. Perhaps because they provide concrete footing while being honest about the mystery. Perhaps that ‘maybe’, that flexibility, is the truth we need to navigate these times. An adventurer’s spirit, loose from fear, seeking only the future without believing that the past is impoverished and needs replacing. When articulation swallows itself, and there is nothing more to say, what then? We must act, but how hard should we think about every single movement, every motion? We cannot make these motions with faith until we understand what it is that we place our faith in.

Many today stress the importance of “mindfulness” or of “being present mentally at all times”. But this is the falsest and most bitter balm of them all. Living entirely in the moment, in the present, without anxiety, without wracking doubt and fear, is a yearning for the world before the Fall, a desire to Eden before knowledge, the desire to become a grazing herd animal or a primordial man that acts upon what it sees, feels and breathes, and does not engage in self-reflection as a habit and a matter of course. The desire to take the world as it is, to be present in it and not seek anything beyond, is a pathetic desire for the state of animality, a happy dog hopping around on a summer day. This too demeans our values, and pretends that our perpetual thinking and articulation about our values is a largely unnecessary source of pain. I can think of nothing as philistine as this, as considering the mind a nuisance to be silenced, particularly when it screams at you the loudest, in situations of anxiety or doubt.

And yet revelation and faith are immediate perceptions. They are not challenged by the infinite wrangling worm of self-doubt and delusion. Knowledge that appears through immediate perception, intuition, is simultaneously the highest function of the artistic consciousness but also our closest function to base animal instinct. Is the mass of our unconscious mind a biological tar pit of old ape ideas, or an illuminated source of being emanated through our brains and hands? Is God a chaos demon or a creative source of order? Are the chaos demon and the angel of order the same being? Are we merely, in the Greek formulation, “the playthings of the Gods”? And yet, with our will, are we supposed to pick sides among the Gods, and create our own values?

To move forward, you have to acknowledge where you are. Millennials have avoided doing this. We do not take stock of our unique historical situation because the platitudes of the ancestors have rendered us passive, or merely as receptors of a project that does not need our input. It needs our input, our lived experience, badly. Our contradictions, our paradox, our casual existential attitude of the disposable sublime. We are in the era of bondage, or mystery, of the tightly-woven chains we must ease our way out of. The mystery will unfold in all its beauty. It must. It has been nourished for billions of years. But we are standing still, or regressing, as a species right now. We are in the mystery that casts our hopes for both internal and external order as alien, and global and spiritual chaos as our home. This cruel God has much to teach us, and we have much to say.

Never stop thinking of these problems, and your experiences, and never pretend that the mystery isn’t real. The mystery is all we have. It has never been touched, only circled.