This continues the discussion begun in last week's column.
Greek Science, Israelite Religion, Human Selfhood
Egyptian ideas of a ka and a ba make a distinction between the experience-self [personality] and the animal-being [life-force]. Hebrew words for living being [nephesh hhayyah] and for breath-of-life [ruach] indicate a concept of what makes animals and humans alive. Life was present in blood and so there were exquisitely meticulous regulations for the shedding of blood, for sacrifice, and for meat consumption. Meaning for soul or spirit is perilous in a Hebrew context, and Greek writers used psyche for nephesh; that word-use did not make it easy for English translators. We now say “psychology” casually, referring to our mental states.
“Psyche” for the Greeks was no easy concept; it needed a grand myth-metaphor to explain what mind is. The story of Psyche and Eros is a marvellous mythos. (“Logos” is another profound concept, meaning word, reason, order, creativity). Hebrew concepts pre-date the Greek words we use to translate them. It seems a mystery; a muddle, even. Translation changes meanings; words have deep cultural context.
We are muddled when we try to think about deity and holiness and the sacred, because the writers of Bible scrolls were not motivated by the sort of inquiring rationalism personified by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the philosophical/scientific giants of our Western intellectual tradition. The biblical writers were not trying to explain human mind, selfhood, material reality, or methods for thinking about them.
The scientific path is not a Semitic inheritance of our culture; it is Hellenic, and we Westerners are heirs of both Israel and Greece. Since around 1700 CE we’ve been taught by our elites to exalt the Hellenic past. The Bible has dimmed in our cultural consciousness. Religion, by modern social consensus, is a very personal private phenomenon. The decline of public religion began 300 years ago.
Do these developments signal our cultural progress or regress? Or, is our way different but neither better nor worse than it has been?
The Bible is a book about relationships, one relationship above all – the extremely strange one between an entity called God (YHWH = I AM) and a collective humanity called Israel. Israelites were taught by their literate political and religious elite to believe in a divinity who was theirs alone, contracted to them by Covenants with obligations and expectations for both parties. Israelite common people kept sliding into easier ritual practices learned from other cultures: baals, asherahs, magic, sorcery -- all such folk custom among the Israelites drove their elite leaders to fury. (Even kings might deviate.)
The Law was clear. God's commands were recorded. The Prophets promised dire consequences for the people's errors. Their God would punish them.
Evil was not a relativist concept for Israelites. It was absolute.
Judging others' minds
Today’s ascended-consciousness enthusiasts call the majority of humans today unconscious or asleep, a.k.a. “the sheeple.”
An illustrative quote from Mountain Culture magazine: “I once watched a documentary about Shambhala [--] It seemed a giant sinkhole of human terribleness [--] you can be high as a kite [--] and experience awakenings and epiphanies you’ll never remember [--] Festivals used to be fun celebrations of individuality but now everyone has a tribal tattoo they don’t understand [--] they’ve become progressively stupid. [If this] is emblematic of a higher level of consciousness, we’re all in trouble.”
Wow. An old-testament prophet would hardly be more angry at watching Israelites fall into heathen-cult ecstasies than this modern observer is, describing the behavior of “new-age festival-goers”.
To judge another person’s level of consciousness is an intrinsically unhelpful act, not making you more conscious and not adding to the world’s supply of compassion. In my opinion. So, have you ascended from the levels of past mind and consciousness? Naturally that is entirely up to you in your individual opinion to decide for yourself.
I said that the question of evil must be part of any understanding of growth in consciousness. We act in evil ways but we have no consciousness of that because evil has lost meaning. A system of formation of mind that trivializes conscience ― except for the ego-individual’s personal “values and choices” ― renders impossible any consensus code of morals and ethics.
Evil in such a system is a matter of opinion, and that would have been unthinkable to ancient minds, not only the Israelite authors of the Bible. Humans thought about good and evil in primordial times, because to do evil would bring dire consequences. Believing that, those humans were very unlike you and I.
System and reality
What forms our minds is system ― the organizing qualities of society, economy, culture and politics we live in. System is what you see when iron filings fall on white paper under which is a magnet. It gives order to what we call “the world.” System shapes every act we perform with the exterior, with other people, with things; it is not an interior Truth, but we call it reality. Ours is materialist, “capitalist” and non-religious ― alien in a vast multitude of ways from the consciouness of ancient humans. For one ancient people, their god (the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel”, to use the biblical phrase) structured all relationships with the outside, and was inside each of them. That was their system. Different, not worse.
How do we moderns measure up to long-ago humanity? Today we watch eminent “statesmen” tell us Iran (North Korea, Soviet Russia, terrorists, etc) are “evil” with all serious intent. Many declare disgust for politics and disengage from the “overworld” of power and money, to retreat into what seems a saner isolated existence ― if they have that luxury. I rather think many of my readers do enjoy such a luxury.
***From this point, I am writing new content. The foregoing was a re-written column from five years ago with significant new additions.***
Evidence for improved consciousness: Women in Western Civilization
My general evaluation of human progress is not always positive, as regular readers of this column surely know. But here I will perhaps surprise you: I see a particular cultural change in only the last century, and almost exclusively in the West, that is proof for me that humans are progressing. Women in the West are far ahead of where women were around the year 1900. Cultural change has empowered women and improved their freedoms and hopefully their lives in advanced Western democracies in the developed world, the rich world, the capitalist-democratic-individualist world.
[Here are two pieces about the progress and lack thereof in women's “liberation” that I just read today.
What follows in the next paragraphs is tendentious for sure. I have been speaking above about “evil” and how difficult it is to describe that. In recent columns I have written a lot about capitalism as a system, and I have been tempted to use the word evil, but ultimately decided I could not use that label for capitalism.
Evil: relative, or absolute?
Terence McKenna was one thinker not reluctant to label capitalism an evil system:
“Well, the twin horrors or twin problems of Western society are ego and materialism. And they’re linked together in a naïve monotheism. This creates toxic cultural conditions if you allow the engine to run for a thousand years, which it now has.
The real unspoken problem now is that capitalism—which we have spent the past hundred and fifty years perfecting in the West—is now perfected. The dilemma is that it’s a real Frankenstein, it can’t be stopped and all it wants to do is turn everything into products to sell to impoverished masses, and it won’t work without an endlessly expandable frontier which no longer exists, therefore the whole thing has gone into some kind of malignant state.
Jobs, free trade, they say—these are the battle cries of this malignancy that wants to level all cultures and turn everything into a commodity. And it’s not being examined and halted. How can you halt it when it’s paying the bill for people? It’s on a hugely exploded level.
Take the dilemma or the closure of the military bases. You have the spectacle of the most liberal members of the Senate whining and pleading that fleets of Strategic Air Command bombers continue to be kept on alert, armed with mega-tonnage to be delivered to the heart of Asia. I mean, they don’t know what to do with themselves. So the toxicity of capitalism is the real issue.”
As I say, I am not blessed with the certainty McKenna has, when he labels the culture of capitalism, materialism, and ego, “evil.” But I do have an opinion about an evil that humanity has allowed for all its recorded history: sexism.
Evil: when one half of the human species is denied equality with the other half
Here I am going to declare a stand. I stake out my ground: the subordination of women, and the entire, vast, ancient cultural-legal tradition that upholds male supremacy, is evil. Not in a relative way, in a timeless way.
The evaluation of the female human as inferior to the male, is a social evil, a moral evil, and a religious evil. The more equality between men and women is made real, the more humanity is making real progress against an evil way of being.
The treatment of one-half the human species as deserving of fewer rights and freedoms, and less power and self-assertion, is wrong. Surely this is a truth worth defending.
Yuval Harari writes a short account of patriarchy in his book, Sapiens, making the point that this form of social order has a very long history ― and one can make a claim that it is “stable” as a form for organizing society without endorsing it as a morally-good form.
Obviously, as one investigates the world beyond the West, patriarchy is still strong and unlikely to be overcome soon. Islam outside the West is manifestly a patriarchy, and within the West, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are all sources of patriarchal practice and theory in their conservative forms. Until they divest themselves of this evil social model, these Abrahamic religions must be resisted politically and legally.
It is inarguable that, as Harari notes, male supremacy is in evidence in the historical record back to the start of human history ― though that only means that, when records that historians can read began to be written, patriarchy was dominant.
In prehistory, it is much harder to know what relations between the genders were. Anthropology has accumulated data on pre-literate, “uncivilized” hunter-forager peoples, and the position of women is not always inferior among folk without agriculture and urban living. But once farms and cities are the norm for a social order, the subordination and inferiority of the female has been the sad pattern of human history.
How women revolutionize the human world
Sexism, then, is a measuring-stick for progress in human consciousness, in my personal understanding. As equality for women moves forward, so does the evolution of human consciousness.
McKenna had an opinion on how women can save the world:
“Anyone in any language can understand in ten minutes that if every woman had just one natural child, in 45 years the population would drop in half. And no matter what anybody says rhetorically, what is really holding women back is that they are still tied into the biological cycle of child rearing.
So what we’re talking about here is an earthquake-style shift where women confine their child rearing activity to one child for 15 years, only a percentage of their productive life-span. Woman would take this enormous step forward in self-empowerment, while the whole Earth’s ecosystem-resource-raw-material production system and everything else undergoes this massive series of feedback changes. Because, you see, a child born to a woman in an upper class, high-tech society uses 800 to 1,000 times more resources than a child in the third world.
And these are the women you’re more likely to reach because they’re well educated, media savvy members of global society. And you just say to these people that you can have vastly expanded leisure-time, increased disposable income, and true status as a hero in the trenches in the fight to save the planet. This is the most politically enlightened and correct thing you could ever do, and as the planetary systems begin to feel the loosening of strain, you could institute social policies so that any woman that would do this would be guaranteed cradle to grave health care, or something like that and just begin to pump the society that way.
Interviewer: What chance do you see us doing that? I wonder how much real change is possible. You’ve got multi-national corporations who don’t care about these problems and have a vested interest in promoting the status quo.
Terence McKenna: You’re right. You’ve got religious and economic forces that wouldn’t like this... yes, this is the real issue. How are we going to deal with those who are making a living off practicing what are essentially predatory and anti-human practices? No, I think it will probably be a hell of a fight, and looking at places like India, where my assumption is that the battle has been lost, it will probably be lost everywhere, in which case we will live in a truly Orwellian hell—managed low class, I mean, ugh. Bad. Democratic values are very fragile. It’s so disturbing, because there’s no management.”
I am completely in harmony with McKenna here; we must depopulate the planet of our immense and insupportable numbers, and this is a practical and utterly good way to ensure a rapid drop in human numbers on Earth.
My personal observations offered as evidence
I have a daughter and a granddaughter. I am personally invested in a social, political, legal, and cultural order in which the female is in all ways fully equal to the male.
We are making progress toward that. It is easy to cite ways we have not achieved the ideal, yet.
Here is my anecdotal evidence for optimism: As I watched young people at play, while I was on duty as a security guard at an East Kootenay festival in July, I made the job a lot more interesting for myself by analysing the society of festival-goers.
Young men and women in this public celebration were acting differently from how my own generation (Baby Boomers) acted, as I remember our gender relations and the freedoms of women in the 1960s and '70s.
There were a lot of young women on the festival fields those two days in July, so young they barely could drink beer legally (and drinking was a major part of this fest), but they were all at least nineteen, no matter how baby-faced they seemed to me. The numbers of young men were about equal to young women. There were more people under 40 than over, but not too many more. I set myself to watching how the young were relating to one another across the gender line.
Did it seem to me that the young women were “liberated” in any meaningful way? My standard of comparison was simple – I tried to remember young women when I was 20 or 30 or 40, and measure their apparent freedoms with the freedoms of the young women I saw at this festival. And I did not neglect observation of the men.
I was pleasantly impressed by how both the women and the men of the younger generation related to one another, in ways that look like an improvement of what I remember of my own days at public festivals, concerts, events. This is a feeble, anecdotal way to bring evidence to bear, I know. But for what it’s worth, I concluded that I saw liberated young women: very confident that no one would mistreat them for how they dressed or how they acted unselfconsciously, and it is my memory that young women were more inhibited when I was young.
There was an expected conformity in the way the young dressed; that is a fact of youth I never expect to change. It seemed like every young woman wore cut-off denim shorts with ragged edges and holes, with the pockets intact and hanging below the hem. Their tops were neither tight nor deep-cut, but the common theme was to let bra-straps show and a fraction of lacy underwear to be visible in the armholes. Not provocative – if one is not already determined that females ought to cover up (and that particular opinion has been expressed to me far too many times by both men and women of my generation.)
The young men were similarly alike, in tank-tops and shorts and flip-flops or bare feet. But they were more often fit-looking and well-groomed, in ways I never bothered with in 1970... Getting your physique in shape matters to young men now more than it used to. I could inveigh against narcissism and ego here, but the fact is, why shouldn't men worry about their physical attractiveness as much as we expect women to? If everyone could relax in this regard, I would applaud. But, looking good matters. Yeah, yeah, consumerism and advertising are not good.
Summarily, optimistically, the whole festival scene was manifestly not some kind of self-conscious mating-game. That seemed the norm when I was young and we rushed around trying to find a partner for sex, because we were in the midst of The Sexual Revolution when I was young, and being relaxed was not so easy. These young people were relaxed. I saw no sexual aggression by the young men, who were amazingly able to accept the young women as they were, “skimpy” clothes and casual hugs and freestyle dancing. Simple male-female friendliness was not rare and the level of sexual frustration in the crowd, according to my sixth sense, was not high. Again, I know this is not very compelling evidence. But I was uplifted.
This scene for me was uplifting because I suppose I have heard a great deal of complaining from the older generation about the empty heads and lack of standards of young people. I came to this scene prepared to dislike it.
I do not drink alcohol myself and I am often intolerant of being around people drinking, yet these people were well-behaved. I commented on the ‘mellow’ feelings of this big crowd, to my colleagues in security. Part of my job was to tell bartenders to “cut off” anyone I thought had been over-served, and I only did this four times the whole weekend. Some stupid violence occurred, as closing time was enforced at night's end, but it was male-on-male. Nothing unusual and not excessive.
The young women I know in Nelson are usually from a quasi-hippie and New Age subculture, and the ones I observed in the East Kootenay were not that. They live in what I assumed was a less-conscious region, and yet they impressed me with their confidence and self-expression. Credit to the males too, for adjusting to the equality and seeming liberated by it too. Men are not inherently opposed to equality, and experience teaches them to see the value and freedom for themselves in such a social order. I do not wish I had been born later. I am content with making the most of evolving female equality now, and knowing my daughter and granddaughter benefit.
My experience of young people as a high-school teacher also provided me with highs and lows in my estimation of how the West is making progress socially or politically. But in general I did witness, over my lifetime, an improvement of equality between the genders. Evidence that the battle, or war, over equality is very far from over and not yet a victory for the Good, is easy to cite. But the speed of forward motion in the cause of liberation and equality is truly remarkable. We need to celebrate that.
To sum up: there is cause for hope, and there is cause for cynicism, in the battle for equality between the genders.
The hope comes from many fronts in the legal and political battles of women in the Western world, and even a few signs in the non-West. Notoriously, the former USSR has rolled back women's legal protection from domestic abuse just this year. But on the other hand, Saudi Arabia is not able to enforce its worst forms of female oppression practiced until quite recently, so long as the royal family needs Western public opinion to be quiescent.
The cynicism comes from things also happening in the West. Trump wins election as US President despite his horrid remarks and attitudes toward women, and he won with a large number of women's votes as well as men's. He spoke about “rapists” from Mexico, and feminists insist there is a “rape culture” in our societies – so even the unevolved mind of Trump is able to manipulate fear of rape to his advantage, and that is a dismal prospect. Conservatives still fight women's equality.
An historically-unprecedented situation is unfolding now, as women make progress in a way we have never seen in recorded history. If female subordination is statistically the norm in the human past, it is not unreasonably pessimistic to fear a regression to past norms might indeed occur. Can the progress Western women have made since the year 1900 be pushed backward? I will not make any prophecy in that regard, but I note in passing that Atwood's novel, A Handmaid's Tale, makes that prediction in fantasy, and many people seem ready to take the possibility quite seriously.
I may be foolish for taking my stand on women's equality as a sure standard of evolving consciousness and real progress against evil. But I will not lose any sleep over criticism of my judgement. My conscience, and my consciousness, are at peace.