anarchy, culture, Enlightenment, freedom, Freud, intelligence, nature, philosophy, Plato, reality, sovereignty, Thomas Hobbes
Of the two lessons from history mentioned in the title, the bad news lesson was sketched in the previous posting. The second lesson inspires more optimism, and it is that there was a philosophically led cultural movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries called the Enlightenment, the accomplishments of which we treasure more as their fragility becomes more and more evident. The three most influential Enlightenment philosophers, on Jonathan I. Israel’s view, were Benedict Spinoza (1631-77), Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), and Denis Diderot (1713-84). In light of the lesson from history sketched in the previous posting, it is clear that the Enlightenment movement was not an unqualified success, although it was and is very far from being ineffectual. In all of history, only that philosophical movement has made noteworthy progress against the entrenched culture of human parasitism, and that was done with a three punch combination.
One punch was a new cultural wave of materialist science. The scientific perspective began to undermine the religion and metaphysics that promoted the legitimacy of top-down parasite factions within Christendom: monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical hierarchies. Descartes, Hobbes, and others of their generation were crucial in that conceptual groundwork for science, breaking away from Aristotelian-religious ideas as previously codified by Thomas Aquinas. The conceptions of materialist science were persuasive and far-reaching enough to create structural instability and a cultural vacuum in the orientation system of Old Regime reality. A ‘system of reality’ is a culturally supplied collective orientation constructed from stories (tragedy and comedy, heroes and villains), sacred texts, laws, oral descriptions, warnings, exhortations, explanations, popular aspirations, as well as typical ways of acting and material culture, altogether enabling individuals to operate with a semi-stable sense of three crucial givens: nature, community, and individual subjective interiority. The cultural instability in Old Regime Christendom caused by scientific ideas enabled the effectiveness of a second Enlightenment punch: a campaign of strengthening the dignity and autonomy of individuals, in contrast to the Augustinian concept of human nature tainted and enslaved by original sin. That was done by recognizing universally distributed rationality: an individually innate human ability to judge what is true and real based entirely on commonly available perceptions. The previous history of the spread of proletarian literacy from the time of Wycliffe in the fourteenth century was crucial in this increasing dignity and power of human nature at the individual level. Philosophers of the radical stream of the Enlightenment presented rationality as empowering bottom-up control of society, re-enforcing universal equality, human rights, and democracy, specifically contradicting any top-down social control in the name of rationality now routinely blamed on the Enlightenment.
The third punch was a promotion of the autonomous application of rationality for the most ambitious philosophical thinking, for a re-conceptualization of the most fundamental realities without appeal to any kind of ‘superego’ such as the omniscient/ omnipotent deity supposedly expressed through established authorities, both religious and civic. Re-thinking reality is distinctly a philosophical project, evading culture with intent to re-model culture, and the enlightenment movement was self-consciously philosophical. ‘Philosophical’ meant making use of rationality without religious assumptions of cosmic or divine purpose for people, without cosmic teleology or any kind of external superego. (Teleology does not necessarily mean cosmic purpose, divine purpose, or purpose in nature.) ‘Philosophical’ meant ‘rationally non-religious’ and consequently de-centralized, asserting a pluralism and diversity of thinking quite foreign to religious cultures.
The radical rationalists of the Enlightenment era re-conceptualized all three branches of the Christian system of reality: nature, community, and individual subjectivity. In medieval and Old Regime reality the human essence was thought to be an immortal soul or spirit, truly at home in a realm of eternity outside and above nature (nature considered as the realm of time or semi-delusional becoming in which human souls are temporarily stranded and tested) and every soul’s destiny was thought to be determined entirely by an omnipotent and eternal deity. The radical rationalists re-conceived nature scientifically as a strictly physical system of ‘clockwork’ completely free of disembodied spirits and their power, free of cosmic teleology, purpose, or destiny. They re-conceived individual subjectivity as universally educable to rationality and capable of spontaneous rationality, even though usually trained by existing institutions to a condition of non-rational credulity, superstition, and abject deference to entrenched authorities. The Enlightenment rationalists upset the Christian system of reality by bringing the human essence back from eternity into nature, rejecting all super-natural entities or realms of being, and then arguing that in the primordial ‘state of nature’, prior to establishment of arbitrary social conventions, all people would have had equal freedoms and rights. In that way, society was re-conceived as a system of equal persons with equal rights and freedoms of thought, expression, and association, best organized as a democratic republic (bottom-up political force). This thorough re-conceptualization of the system of reality profoundly weakened the legitimacy of monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical hierarchies.
The strongest social and cultural authorities have always persisted in an anti-enlightenment campaign, for obvious reasons. The cultural and political situation at the launch of the twenty-first century reveals that elements of the enlightenment re-conceptualization of reality failed the test of determined opposition. Enlightenment theory contained some flaws and mis-conceptions. Still, the intent here is to learn lessons from the Enlightenment about re-thinking reality so as to reach a point in history where we get beyond the influence of human parasites.
The Current System
The Freudian model of individual subjectivity is a fair codification of the currently prevailing system of reality. Since Freud, it has been common to explain social behaviour, culture, and history as projections of human psychology, always expressing strictly natural forces, forces other than individual creative freedom. The parasite culture loves a conception of subjectivity dominated by natural drives or universal compulsions because such impulses are reliably available to be culturally triggered, stimulated, managed, manipulated, channelled, and controlled so as to sustain a set of mass demands that can be supplied at a profitable price, for example, or to arrange mass lessons and training exercises in obedience and subordination such as wars. In addition, the apparently chaotic and atomizing force of such compulsions provides a convenient excuse to insist on institutionalizing some version of a great unquestionable parent, structuring reality to include an authoritarian power which parasite factions intend to reserve for themselves to occupy and operate. In the Freudian model, that parental role is called the ‘superego’. Historically earlier systems of reality featured myths of disembodied super-intelligent powers such as gods and demons, or an all-determining realm of eternity, whose power accounted for and sanctified the worldly power of the parasites. Modern theorists often proceed from the observation that there just are social supervisors, no matter what their legitimacy or origin, and people must become “well adjusted” by internalizing their influence. However, in the absence of ‘just so stories’ or appeals to divine intervention in appointing social supervisors, the modern system of reality falls back onto social contract theory as a foundation for social authority figures.
Hobbes’ vision of the ‘state of nature’ is a decently accurate description of the culture-world of will-to-power masculinity (distinct from human nature, even though Hobbes presented it as human nature), always on the brink of war of all against all. On the Hobbesian vision, the carriers of the masculine will-to-power avoid the all-destructive war of anarchy by agreeing to acquire the benefits of social order and civil society by instituting a contract by which a sovereign, with absolute power over life and death, is established to decree laws by which all will be bound (when they can’t evade enforcement). The social contract essentially confers ultimate and unlimited ownership of persons and properties upon the sovereign. So, from nothing more than cowboy rational self-interest (now assumed to be determined biologically), authority figures of civil society emerge to constrain the many anarchic expressions of self-interest, naturally pre-determined compulsive egoism. This is a vision which has eliminated transcendence completely, satisfying the demands of respectability imposed by science. Hobbesian theory, from Leviathan, like Plato’s model of the three-part soul from Republic, is one of those intellectual images of reality which became ingrained in culture at many levels, to the point of being considered obvious and difficult to question.
The Freudian Model
When Plato’s ancient but perennial model of a three-part subjectivity (expressed outwardly in a stratified society) is combined with Hobbes’ theory of socially contracted sovereignty, what emerges is codified in Freud’s model of personality or subjectivity, from which the term “superego” is taken along with the other elements of the structure, namely “id” and “ego”. (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche had already developed these ideas.) In that model, the main vectors of force are the id, bestial lusts for pleasure, sparkly things, power, and status (the lower two-thirds of Plato’s model, on the Freudian view reducible to nature in the form of biological compulsions); and the superego, representing authority figures from ambient society such as parents, teachers, priests, and police, internalized within each individual’s subjectivity by exposure to education, religion, and secular socialization. Those two vectors of force, nature and society, confront and balance one another in every person’s subjectivity, and at their point of balance a semi-stable image seems to appear, an image called the ego, the individual personality. There is no original or autonomous force or substance to that ego on this model, no reality. The ego has only the force of id as bent into some semblance of social conformity by the force of authority figures. That is all there is to an individual Freudian-type intelligence, really just another iteration of the pre-Lutheran Christian vision of human nature enslaved by original sin but civilized by the ever-ready whips and gallows of Church and military-monarchical states.
So, Freud’s model of the individual’s psychological interior is a structure of three elemental positions, two of which are forces: the set of instinctive or biological drives collectively called the id, and the aforementioned superego consisting of internalized authority or parental figures featuring officials of various kinds representing the institutional realities of sovereignty and deity, the ultimate and unlimited owners of all persons and property. Between the id and the superego is the image called the ego, and it is all position and no original force or content, merely the balancing point between instinctive drives and socially derived constraints. That ego, nothing more than a semi-stable image, can be recognized as another view of “zombie shells” (invoked in earlier posts) when other forces of social influence are considered, such as role models among peers influencing appearance, interests, and attitudes toward people in various economic situations, people with different ways of making a living; and also role models thrown up by teachers or media personalities, for example, in terms of careers, style of life, appearances of pleasure, power, and status. Everyone needs to be accepted socially, and so has to conform to some accepted style of life and style of person. All these social approvals/ disapprovals are forces which shape a person’s outward presentation into an image of a social personality, an ego. However, that image of personality is not created by social pressures and biological compulsions alone, but most importantly by an individual intelligence managing those forces while remaining quite distinct from the ego image.
The Thinking Subject
We need to re-model the system of reality codified in the Freudian vision by adding a new creative force, namely individual intelligence, which creates the ego image as part of its management of a whole array of impulses and forces acting on it. The social and cultural dominance of parasite factions can never be complete or irrevocable because of an elemental, autonomous, and creative freedom to individual intelligences (simply as intelligences) which asserts itself and which, in asserting itself, is able to recognize and to mark its divergence from forces tending to control, deceive, and diminish it. One of the ways in which individual freedom asserts itself is in thinking about itself within a system of reality and developing self-awareness and self-identification, which is to say, in a sort of philosophical thinking.
Thinking is self-directed reorientation in increasingly refined and elaborated questioning, acting on specific curiosity in searching experiences to open the world in novel patterns of recognition and identification. That reorienting search is not entirely directed outward. Ideas are not imposed on intelligence by sensations. There are two surprise horizons at play in the individual’s process of reorientation. Inseparable from the outward sensory reach there is also an inward opening to growth and development in the integration and restructuring of accumulated bearings from past experience and so to what is being sought, in the specifics of curiosity, wonder, or questioning, in a sense of possibilities, patterns, or ideas. Inseparable from that is a developing sense of what it is that is curious and questions and gazes and listens and opens to new recognitions and new bearings, of thinking as a personal creative act. Individuals create completely original and unique states or shapes of orientation, just in the course of the ordinary process of building a particular life. Although linguistic utterances are often used in reorientation, they are not the main story. The reality of thinking without language is important since language is culture and loaded with the malice of parasitic influence. Thinking without language is just reorienting in patterns far too complex to be codified in language. Language is too rigid structurally, rule-bound, too standard and conventional to help much in self-directed reorienting. The sense of effortful, metabolically costly embodiment is more important. From personal curiosity you seek out the niche aspects of experience, previously unidentified within the increasingly big picture, which open new prospects you are ready to explore and to mark.
The subjective interiority described in the standard Freudian model is a culturally programmed nearly-reality, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Superegos do loom large for most individuals. The individual’s sense of self-definition is often not much more than an image or shell patched together from cultural fragments, and appetites and competitive spirit are culturally triggered and encouraged along certain channels. However, this model and the nearly-reality it depicts are products of parasitic cultural influences and profoundly misrepresent individual intelligences. Just as radical rationalists of the Enlightenment era built on certain cultural legacies which increase the recognition of dignity and power in individual intelligences, maintaining progress requires another assertion of individual autonomy.
The autonomous force of intelligence is far richer than the instinctive-biologically driven id. There is an intelligence in a particular natural and cultural situation building a sustainable life. That intelligence is very far from being identical with the ego image, although it constructs the ego image to survive. History shows that superegos all represent the control of top-down parasite culture, driven by malign and ignoble origins, pretences, and motives. Superegos all claim ownership of the individual subject, both body and subjectivity, at the same time as doing their utmost to obscure and disguise their actual parasitism. There is no legitimacy to any ownership of individual intelligences, and so it is crucial to repudiate the claim of parasite factions and institutions to own individuals. To be un-owned is an absolute requirement of freedom, by definition and in practice. Anyone undertaking to think philosophically, for example, must not be owned but must be consciously autonomous. To abandon superegos is to recognize your own condition of not-being-owned, and in doing that, you have to recognize the same for every other individual intelligence. Philosophy can never be an assertion of top-down intellectual authority because it throws authority to every individual, based entirely on the power of intelligence-as-such.
As a consequence of recognizing the autonomous power of individual intelligences, the currently prevailing system of reality as depicted in the Freudian model can and should be re-constructed by removing superegos completely. The normal fear raised to justify the necessity of superegos or sovereign supervisors is the vision of individuals as missiles of compulsive self-gratification, but that is only true of individuals conditioned to the traditional culture of will-to-power masculinity. When that cultural conditioning is unloaded, what is left is a much more complicated innocent intelligence which empathically recognizes and responds to the presence of other separate intelligences. The innate importance and force of individual intelligence means that abandoning all forms of the superego does not unleash the bestial lusts of nature in the form of id, but rather unleashes the individual to realize its autonomy and creative power, which includes the force for empathic interconnectedness. The only way to have an authentic morality is by developing the innocent empathy that remains when the cultural influences are removed that insist on defining some persons in such a way as to legitimize the use of them as hosts for parasitic purposes. Anyway, superegos founded in human parasitism are strictly absurd as guardians of morality. Their whole way of being is anti-empathic immorality.
The individual self-construct needs to be re-conceived by displacing instinctive drives with intelligent questioning, an intelligence searching for empathic interconnectedness. (Please see blog posting 77, November 19, 2014, Of Questions and Freedom: A Paradigm Shift for Intelligent Motivation.) This paradigm shift has the effect of re-constructing or re-modelling the whole system of modern reality. It requires that we re-model reality to recognize a discontinuity between unfree nature and free intelligences, to open a space for individual freedom in spite of the brute determinism of nature, especially in the form of biological compulsions. It was the radical Enlightenment rationalists who originally brought the idea of a human essence back from eternity into time and nature, but they were only partly right. They were right that the discontinuity is not as imagined in Christianity, but it isn’t as if we can de-couple intelligences completely from nature. Although individual intelligences are describable as separate universes of time and orientation, each is a universe that is oriented to the world of nature and fundamentally in love with other intelligences with whom it engages always through the medium of nature. It can’t float off to some ethereal cloud of eternity, because intelligence couldn’t construct teleological time without an engagement with nature. What is crucial is a recognition that culture expresses more than nature, that understanding culture requires a recognition of individual creative intelligences.
Note: My impressions of the Enlightenment are largely from the monumental Enlightenment trilogy by Jonathan I. Israel, specifically cited in previous postings.
Copyright © 2015 Sandy MacDonald.