Monday, 10 January 2022

Secular Gain Means Spiritual Loss

It's often said today that we are much more enlightened than our forefathers because we are less violent, more egalitarian, more concerned for the weak and poor and so on. The psychologist Stephen Pinker has written books about this from the point of view of Enlightenment rationalism and these are regarded as authoritative by secular materialists.

It can't be denied that we have improved on the past in many respects. However, it's not quite as simple as it might appear and the improvement is not necessarily an improvement in overall terms. We now see ourselves in a purely materialistic light so naturally we pay more attention to that sphere of life. But the spiritual loss we have undergone at the same time, along with the contraction into the hard nut of the ego-self, far outweighs any gain in worldly terms. What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul? That saying has become almost a cliché. Yet it is precisely what we have done.

Obviously we will put our energy into areas we think are important. By the same token, we will neglect those areas we think unimportant or even non-existent. Modern man has shrunk his awareness of reality right down to the material world. Of course, he focuses on that as the sphere of his concern. Therefore he works to make material improvements, changes that will benefit the material man, increase his worldly happiness, reduce his suffering. But these changes might actually be spiritually harmful, especially if they encourage identification with the earthly man. Then they will cut the human being off from his true self. It's harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Another cliché. But all we are doing now is making ourselves rich in the worldly sense. Do you think Jesus was referring only to money? He was referring to any and every aspect of material life and particularly when it is severed from spiritual life.

I am not condoning violence but could it be we are less violent because we are more cowardly, more self-indulgent, less tough than our ancestors? Nor do I condone exploitation of the weak by the strong but have certain improvements in the social sphere been driven only by compassion or is there also a greater amount of envy and resentment in our make-up these days? JM Smith has written an excellent piece on The Orthosphere about how democracy fosters envy*. Present developments in almost any area of life you care to look at seem to bear that out. If we're all equal why should you or anyone else have more than me? Even if you're more intelligent and work harder, it's still not fair. I resent it in a way I might not have done in a world where society was based on more traditional lines. The fact that these could degenerate is not an argument against them because everything degenerates if not maintained properly.

Does this mean that any gains in the social and material spheres are inevitably a bad thing spiritually? By no means. There will certainly be a tendency to spiritual loss for, as we have been told, you cannot serve two masters. (Cliché number 3). But if the material world is seen fully in the context of the spiritual there is no reason why the part of life that rightly belongs to it cannot be honoured any more than focus on the soul means you neglect the body. But the chief area of one's attention should always be the spiritual soul and if that essential fact is ignored then any improvements you make in the secular sphere are not just immaterial but positively harmful for they take you further and further away from your true purpose as a human being in this world.

* By pure coincidence, and I assure you it is, I see Professor Smith has just linked to an article of mine from The Orthosphere. It's strange how these things work out.


Lady Mermaid said...

This is a good follow up to your recent post about the role of technology in our lives.

Interestingly, not too long ago a survey was posted showing that Britons were happiest in the 1870s.

Of course, this type of "happiness" can be quite subjective. However, it's interesting that people may have been happier in the Victorian era w/ poverty, civil unrest, and disease compared to our much more materially comfortable lives today. While there were plenty of troubles in Victorian Britain, I think the Victorians had a greater sense of spiritual purpose than us moderns.

I one time heard someone compare modern man to being hospitalized. Sick patients are not very violent, but that doesn't mean they're healthy. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death and people are more isolated, lonely, and depressed than before. A lot of people are quite surprised that after a period of several years in the modern world during their teenage years, most Amish/Mennonite youth choose to carry out their families' traditional
ways. Having more stuff doesn't compensate for the alienation that characterizes much of modern life.

While it would not be possible or even desirable to fully emulate the Amish, we could start questioning material "progress" at the expense of more important values. A final conclusion is summed up quite well by Bruce Charlton explaining that no activity is "intrinsically" good. Motivation is the key.

William Wildblood said...

A lot of what we think of as our virtues now derive from a false idea of who and what we are, and from a broader perspective seem more like vices or, at the very least, shortcomings. As always it's a matter of getting first principles right. The Victorians lived at a time when society had a sense of purpose and confidence, two things we have lost nowadays though we try to disguise that fact from ourselves. They were also very aware of the reality of something beyond this world that gave a meaning to this world which it otherwise would lack. That must provide, if not happiness, then certainly a feeling of solid ground beneath your feet, something we also lack now.

JMSmith said...

Thanks for the link. Synchronicity is a funny thing, although perhaps not so funny once one understands the world correctly. I agree with what you say about cowardice being at least part of the reason we are less violent. I would add that we enlightened people are all now much more dishonorable. I mean that we tend to acquiesce when we are insulted, to congratulate ourselves for "rising above it," and to look down on primitives who still get into fights over honor. I've been guilty of this, but have come to see that it is dishonorable (shameful) to be dishonorable (insulted with impunity). I'm not saying that we should all go out and buy a set of dueling pistols, or that every slight should be turned into a "beef," but that a man who shrugs off everything isn't much of a man.

I think it is significant that we say a man shows "spirit" when he stands up for himself because I think "spirituality" requires pugnacity. It also requires acquiescence, but I think it is a terrible modern error to think that a man becomes more passive and acquiescent as he becomes more spiritual. We see this mix of acquiescence and pugnacity in Christ.

William Wildblood said...

It's rather like turning the other cheek. There are times when it's the right think to do and others when it would be the craven thing. The spiritual path isn't like following a set of specific rules for a specific outcome. It's not a mechanical thing but requires creative engagement. As you say, this is just what we see in Christ who overturned tables on one occasion and let himself be scourged on another.