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from the human-rites dept.
These are notes that I wrote after reading Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies, a book which transformed my political worldview. At the time, it seemed to me that in a curious way, Popper's work was the perfect complement to Crowley's. Popper was a democrat with no insight into mysticism; Crowley was a mystic with no insight into democracy. Together, I find that they suggest a coherent vision that is responsive to our needs as spiritual beings and as members of a society striving towards justice. If only I could delineate this vision coherently! In the meantime, these preliminary ideas are offered to encourage discussion of these issues.
Assumption: There is an aspect of human consciousness that is a consciousness of the whole, as distinct from our ordinary consciousness of particular things or events. Although many individuals from all times and places claim to have had experience of this consciousness of the whole (or "gnosis"), this assumption is probably unprovable. We can, however, follow out some of the implications of this assumption to see whether it may prove useful to us.
Underlying democracy is the ethical principle that individuals should be as free as possible to determine their own course of conduct, since each individual can only determine what is right for him- or herself through the examination of conscience.
But how does the individual distinguish conscience from other inner impulses? Is conscience the integration of our particular point of view with gnosis, or the consciousness of the underlying unity of all things? Perhaps "gnosics" are those who seek to strengthen this integration. Gnosis, in this view, wouldn't be a rare state granted only to a few, but a universal human faculty, familiar to all who examine their conscience.
Perhaps there is a meeting ground between democracy and gnosticism, suggesting that those who wish to propagate democracy would do well to embrace gnosticism, and that those who would propagate gnosis would likewise further that end through the promotion of democracy.
Truth, Goodness, and Meaning
In the realm of reason, we assume the existence of an absolute truth which we can approach through propositions and rational criticism. In the realm of conscience, we assume an absolute good, which we can approach through proposals and introspection (with the aid of rational criticism).
Difficulties can arise when the attempt is made to use gnosis as a way of justifying statements about particular things. Statements of fact are best evaluated by reason and scientific method. There are few, if any, propositions that can be derived from pure gnosis; also, gnosis alone can never be used to evaluate the truth of any proposition.
Policies or decisions, on the other hand, are evaluated by conscience, and therefore, by the light of gnosis. To an extent, reason also comes into play, as for example, in the rational criticism of the likely outcomes of a policy.
In addition to the realms of truth and goodness, there is the realm of meaning. Meanings originate in imagination. They can, to a certain extent, also be evaluated by reason and conscience. But, unlike truth and goodness, there is no need to posit absolute meaning. There is no reason why we cannot all determine our own meanings to events, as long as we continue to be informed by reason and conscience.
(Of course, I am speaking here of meaning in the sense of "meaning of life" or "meaning of history," not in the sense of asserting some proposition about facts. In other words, some might say that what their life means is that they are an incarnation of God. This stance could be rationally examined and possibly found not to be disprovable. It could also be examined for its ethical implications and, depending on the character of those making the assertion, could possibly be found not to imply anything hurtful. Beyond these reviews, the matter is entirely the decision of the individual. This is a completely different matter from the assertion that such godhead means that one can walk on water, which is easily determined -- or rather refuted -- through experiment.)
In short, our common sense leads us to believe in an absolute truth, while our conscience (particularly in the light of gnosis) leads us to believe in an absolute good, yet there are no grounds for holding meaning to be anything but relative, when not in conflict with truth or goodness. This may be close to saying that beauty remains relative, even after asserting that truth and goodness are absolutes.
(We might playfully distinguish between "homosemiots," who prefer to share a similar sense of meaning with others, and "heterosemiots," who prefer to find meanings unique to themselves.)
Religions can be viewed as attempts to provide frameworks for a shared sense of meaning; a common language for inner experience. Metaphysical systems, along the lines of the kabalistic tree of life, the tarot, and the I Ching, also attempt to provide such frameworks, while additionally functioning as tools for working with inner life.
Gnosis and Equality
It may be that the integration of gnosis with our point of view might take place to a greater or lesser extent within different individuals. But this should not be taken to imply that a more greatly integrated person can decide what is right for a less integrated person. First of all, it seems certain that no one can know one's point of view better than one's self. But even if it were possible (through extraordinary powers one might imagine being possessed by gurus, enlightened masters, etc.), it would seem to be a fundamental violation of what we generally hold to be the sanctity of the individual. There are circumstances where individuals decide to follow the dictates of a guru or teacher, but the fundamental decision remains their own. To force a student to obey a teacher, or to prevent a student from ending a period of obedience, is simple tyranny. Many Westerners tend to view these sorts of arrangements as being dangerous territory -- a suspicion that is too often well-founded.
The Limits of Reason
"Rationalism" is sometimes defined as the desire to solve as many problems as possible through the use of reason. This is still a useful attitude, as long as we recognize that there are some domains where the use of reason is not applicable. As suggestive evidence of this, one might consider how, in modern times, the spread of rationalism has been accompanied by the spread of the sense of meaninglessness, and, in response, by the revival of spirituality.
One abuse of rationalism is the attempt to find meaning through the use of reason alone. As we have seen, reason can be a valuable tool for criticizing certain aspects of ideas about meaning. But these ideas originate, not from reason, but from imagination. With this in mind, the attempt to find "rational" meaning can be seen as the attempt to only allow meaningful possibilities that seem rational. The crucial point here is that this seeming rationality is imagined, not reasoned. This fantasy of using reason outside of its proper domain causes us enormous problems, both psychologically and culturally.
Karl Popper wrote that "those who undermine man's faith in reason are unlikely to contribute much to [establishing the brotherhood of man.]" But it is the attempt to apply reason beyond its bounds that has brought it into disrepute. To recognize other aspects of being besides the rational is not to undermine man's faith in reason. If anything, it is by placing reason in proper perspective that we may restore confidence in rationality.
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