Quotes & Commentary #31: James

Quotes & Commentary #31: James

In mystical literature such self-contradictory phrases as ‘dazzling obscurity,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘teeming desert,’ are continually met with. They prove that not conceptual-speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.

—William James

William James’s book on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is of mixed quality. Penetrating insights are buried in mountains of redundant quotations, and a mass of anecdotal evidence is substituted for a coherent system. After putting it down, the only chapter that made a deep impression on me was his chapter on mysticism.

Before that, I had no notion of mysticism as distinct from organized religion; and yet it is quite discrete. Instead of focusing on external rituals, communally observed, the mystic focuses on his own private experiences; and instead of attempting to translate religious experiences into a mythology or a dogma, the mystic more often reverts to poetry or song to convey the intensity of his private rapture. Mysticism is naturally antipathetic, or at the very least indifferent, to organized religion. A mystic needs no clergyman to access the divine. No intermediary clerics, priests, or theologians are necessary to translate the voice of God into profane speech.

One especially striking feature of mysticism is its ubiquity. While dogmas, creeds, rituals, and mythologies vary greatly, the basic notions and motifs of mysticism are encountered across the world. I have encountered Islamic mysticism in Al-Ghazali, Catholic mysticism in St. Teresa, Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads, and Neoplatonist mysticism in Plotinus. The Tao Te Ching of ancient China is full of the self-contradictory phrases described by William James, such as the famous opening: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao. The name that can be named is not the Constant Name.”

The common theme running through these works is that the mystic, through intense focus, can look past the world as we know it and gaze upon a higher reality, a divine vision normally invisible to earthly eyes. Right now I am reading a short book by the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, in which he describes a method for attaining exactly this. Once you experience this higher reality, religious doubts become irrelevant; your religion becomes a matter of experience and not of faith.

So if mystics have experienced the divine, why don’t they tell us about it? The problem is that the vision is ineffable. This is why, as William James points out, mystic poets often resort to contradictory language as a way of evoking this mysterious essence. The mythologist Joseph Campbell says almost exactly the same thing: “The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don’t render the experience, they suggest it.” St. Teresa of Ávila, for example, had to resort to metaphor after metaphor in her manual on mysticism in order to communicate the experience.

In capturing the mystical experience, visual art would have the same problem as does language, since the artist would be attempting to picture the invisible. Music has the advantage of being neither symbolic nor representative. As sound, it is purely sensuous, perhaps a direct expression of emotion. At the very least sound does not tempt its hearers into confusing the symbol for the symbolized, as language and painting might, and so it can be more safely used to transmit ineffable experiences. Music doesn’t communicate emotions, it evokes them in its audience; it doesn’t represent feelings, it re-creates them in its hearers.

The mystical potential of music was memorably illustrated for me in the autobiography of Bryan Magee. A logical, educated man, and one constitutionally antipathetic to religion, Magee nonetheless describes being so transported by music that he felt he was experiencing another plane of reality, one where there is neither time nor space. This experience was so strong that he felt sure it provided him with some clue about the ultimate nature of reality. But he was frustrated by his inability to translate this feeling into a logical argument. Once again, the mystic insight eludes symbolic expression.

Philosophically, the interesting question is this: to what extent can these intense visions can be trusted? It is beyond doubt that mystics can have ecstatic experiences; the question is what causes them. The sensation of divinity and rapture is so intense that the mystic usually cannot bring himself to doubt its veracity. But this subjective feeling of certainty is a poor guide, to say the least, of what can be safely trusted. This is not just a scientific principle; the Catholic Church was well aware of the unreliability of private visions. This is why Saint Teresa’s book is full of strategies for determining whether your vision is from Satan or God, and careful instructions about how to proceed within the Catholic hierarchy once you have a vision.

Occam’s razor would seem to demand that a naturalistic explanation be preferred for mystic visions. The simplest explanation, and the explanation that most easily harmonizes with our current scientific understanding, is that these ecstatic experiences can be traced to something happening in the brain. Nevertheless, I find it difficult not to sympathize with mystics. If I had an experience that was more intense than anything I’ve seen or heard in my waking live, I think that I would also be unwilling to doubt what I saw.

Quotes & Commentary #27: Aesop

Quotes & Commentary #27: Aesop

What is worth most is often valued least.

—Aesop

This quote is the moral of the fable, “The Stag at the Pool.” The story, like all of Aesop’s fables, is elegant and simple.

A beautiful stag stops at a pool to take a drink of water. But while bending down, he notices his reflection in the pool. “What beautiful antlers I have!” he says to himself, and begins to turn his head left and right, admiring his antlers. “I would be the paragon of animals if I didn’t have such pitiful, skinny legs!” he says.

Just then, a lion spring out of a nearby bush. The stag turns to run. On his skinny legs he is fleet enough to put distance between himself and the lion. He takes cover in a wooded area. The lion is falling behind, and the stag seems to be losing him. But just then, the stag’s antlers get stuck in a tree branch. No matter how much he twists and turns, he can’t extricate himself.

“What a fool I am!” he says to himself. “I despised my legs, which allowed me to escape, and praised my antlers, which doomed me.” But before the late-blooming philosopher can get any further in his thoughts, he is eaten by the lion.

This moral now reminds me of something Bryan Magee said in his intellectual autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher. He is attempting to summarize the central insight of most religions (and many philosophies, I’d say):

The world is governed by false values. People in all societies seem anxious to do what they think is the done thing, and are terrified of social disapproval. They set their hearts on getting on in the world, being thought highly of by their fellows, being powerful, acquiring money and possessions, knowing “important” people.

As I have discussed in my review of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, I think it is, to a certain extent, inevitable that society be governed by these “false values”: wealth, power, attractiveness, coolness, fame, skill, and popularity. Society simply cannot function without them, because society inevitably involves competition: for power, for wealth, for mates, and for fame. Any time there is a competition—with more competitors than prizes—then there arise, ipso facto, standards for determining winners and losers. The competition for wealth causes us to admire the rich; the competition for mates causes us to admire the beautiful; and so on, and so forth.

But these values, which we often put so much stock in, are ultimately superficial and vain. They measure the individual—a constantly evolving, chaotic mixture of virtues, vices, skills, traits, and follies—by external things, like money or power, which are as often as not gotten by luck or villainy. The superficiality of these measures is apparent whenever someone suffers an acute reversal of fortune. A woman in an apparently successful marriage discovers that her husband is having an affair; a young entrepreneur makes a bad choice and goes bankrupt; a one-hit-wonder musician is washed up by thirty. The people themselves did not change; their luck did. And luck is not the measure of a person’s worth.

I do not think society need be condemned for being governed by superficial values. But because this is always so, we must constantly remind ourselves that all these values of the game, these values of the competition for worldly success, and all the relentless, never-ending messages we imbibe every day about the definition of success—all this might as well be a puff of smoke for all its permanence.

The really valuable things are not the prizes of competitions, but are available to anyone. The smell of the air on a chilly autumn day; the chirping of birds and the ringing of church bells echoing through a town; the reds and yellows of a cloudy sunset. Art, love, the pursuit of truth, the laughter of friends—these are what we most enjoy, and it is not a coincidence that enjoying them doesn’t require winning any game.

The story of the stag and his antlers illustrates this point very well. The stag is proud of his antlers, because antlers are what stags use to fight for mates. The stag with the biggest antlers is thus the manliest, the most successful in the eyes of the herd. But the superficiality of this herd value is apparent when the lion attacks. Now what is most valuable? The thing that is given to every stag at birth: his legs.

So remember: never overvalue your antlers at the expense of your legs. When bad luck hits—whether its in the form of a lion or a breakup—then its your legs that will get you through, and your big, impressive antlers will just get in the way.