Lies and Truths about Who We Are

The most important question a person can ask is the philosophical question, “Who am I?”, because without knowing who we truly are, we will not be sure that what we seek is good for us and what we try to avoid is bad. 

The unexamined answer given to the philosophical question determines to a large extent our concrete daily existence. Consider Charles Wright, a good friend of mine in graduate school. After he received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics, he accepted a job at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where he worked on and off with Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician who coined the word “fractals.”

I lost touch with Charlie, but twenty years after he left Ann Arbor, out of the blue, I received a telephone call from him. He told me that eighteen months before his call he had an epiphany. Delayed at work by an unending meeting, he arrived home later than usual. It was a sunny, summer evening; he parked his car in the driveway of his new Victorian house; and through the windshield, he saw his twelve-year-old son and his nine-year-old daughter clowning around, laughing, while playing badminton in the backyard. Charlie said, “I just sat there in the driveway filled with gratitude for what I hadn’t earned or striven for—family happiness. I was the luckiest guy in the world.” Eight months later, in deep winter, he lost his job because IBM restructured, and his wife filed for divorce and had moved out of the house with his two children. Just before he finished his call to me, Charlie said he was in Silicon Valley working at a startup tech firm, living in an apartment by himself, unbearably lonely, especially on weekends, and that is why he called me, to connect to an old friend from the past.

Growing up in a competitive society, Charlie had it drilled into his head from seventh grade through graduate school that career success is fulfilling, that the acquisition of material goods would make him happy, and that successful people were worth more than losers. Then, one day his world collapsed; he no longer knew who he was and feared he was a loser, a nothing. Charlie hadn’t an inkling that the habits and attitudes instilled in him by culture directed his life, and thus he could not examine them, as he had the precepts of physics.

Most of us are like my friend Charlie: “We believe ourselves to be the shapers of our own destinies, but more often we chase after culturally-defined goals as though we were automatons, unaware of the spate of signals which constantly barrage us and mold our attitudes,” historian Richard Rapson observes. “Even if those goals are achieved, the mature adult frequently finds them unsatisfying and wonders where his or her life went wrong.”[1]

If we recognize that we do not know who we are, then the only course of action in life that makes any sense is to pursue relentlessly the inscription on the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi—Know Thyself.

The First Big Lie: We Are Isolated, Autonomous Individuals

Alexis de Tocqueville captured in one word the essence of Modernity. He was the first person to use the word “individualism” and reports “that word ‘individualism,’ which we coined for our own requirements, was unknown to our ancestors, for the good reason that in their days every individual necessarily belonged to a group and no one could regard himself as an isolated unit.”[2] The Latin word “indīviduum,” the root of the English word “individual,” means an indivisible whole existing as a separate entity.

“The fundamental assumption of Modernity,” sociologist Daniel Bell writes, “the thread that has run through Western civilization since the sixteenth century, is that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person.”[3] From their extensive study of how various cultures understand the self, social psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama conclude that in the modern West the individual is viewed as an “independent, self-contained, autonomous entity.”[4] Anthropologist Clifford Geertz adds that such a conception of the self is unique in the world’s cultures.[5] In premodern Africa, for instance, a person regarded himself or herself “as a rather insignificant part of a much larger whole—the family and the clan—and not as an independent, self-reliant unit.”[6]

In America, individualism is not an idea found in philosophical treatises or political tracts, say John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government or James Madison’s Federalist No. 51, and then put into practice, but a lived experience. Tocqueville, while traveling through the dense woods in Michigan, in 1831, came across a pioneer and his family, making the “first step toward civilization in the wilds.” He noted in his travel diary that “from time to time along the road one comes to new clearings. As all these settlements are exactly like one another, whether they are in the depths of Michigan or just close to New York, I will try and describe them here once and for all.”[7] The settler’s log house showed “every sign of recent and hasty work.” The walls and roof were fashioned from rough tree trunks; moss and earth had been rammed between the logs to keep out cold and rain from inside the house. The settler exhibited little curiosity in his French visitor, and in showing hospitality to the stranger, he “seemed to be submitting to a tiresome necessity of his lot and in it saw a duty imposed by his position, and not a pleasure.” The pioneer and his family formed a “little world” of their own, an “ark of civilization lost in a sea of leaves. A hundred paces away the everlasting forest spread its shade, and solitude began again.”[8]

One hundred and twenty-five years after Tocqueville visited the settler in the wilds of Michigan, I, as an adolescent forty miles west of Motown, inherited through American culture the pioneer’s individualism. I thought that to be free meant to be an isolated, autonomous individual and believed that I owned myself and my abilities, that all the relations I had with other persons I voluntarily chose, and that I owed nothing to other persons except what I of my own free will incurred.

An inescapable consequence of individualism is loneliness, the desolate, empty feeling of being deprived of human companionship. We Americans move away from our families, do not know our neighbors, and get accustomed to walking down the same crowded streets every day without looking anyone in the eye. We are careful not to invade another’s personal space. If a stranger in a fast food restaurant asked us to share a booth, we would immediately perceive him as a threat or perhaps as mentally unbalanced; we are perfectly happy to sit alone in a swivel chair facing a blank wall.

Loneliness by Hans Thoma (National Museum in Warsaw)
Loneliness by Hans Thoma, National Museum in Warsaw. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

The 2000 U.S. census uncovered that one out of every four households consisted of only one person. “At any given time, roughly twenty percent of individuals—that would be sixty million people in the U.S. alone—feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives,” write John Cacioppo, a research psychologist at the University of Chicago, and William Patrick, the editor of the Journal of Life Sciences.[9] Loneliness in America is epidemic.

Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States from 2014 to 2017, observed that “loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity, [as well as with] a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”[10]

No matter where we are, even when in a familiar group, we Americans always feel a vague sense of estrangement and loneliness. Many popular songs express the aching pain and empty feeling of social isolation. You feel more alone with more people around, Bob Dylan agonizes.[11] “Where do all the lonely people come from?” the Beatles ask.[12]

The lonely often experience feelings of worthlessness and failure that they cannot publicly admit to in a success-oriented culture. Desperate for love, the lonely join health clubs, take night classes, buy new clothes, go to beauty salons, haunt bars, all with the aim of becoming loved; seldom do the lonely think about how they could love another better.

The First Great Truth: We Exist Only in Relationship

Nothing has an independent existence separable from everything else. That things exist only in relationship is very much present in everyday modern life, contrary to our cultural myth of individualism.

Sense Experience

If we were raised from infancy as isolated individuals, we literally could not understand what we see. For human vision to be meaningful, a person must be a participant in the world. This surprising property of vision was demonstrated in a series of classic experiments by Theodor Erismann.[13] He fitted persons with vision-distorting goggles that made straight lines appear curved, right angles seem acute or obtuse, and distances seem expanded or shortened. Amazingly, after a few days, a subject’s vision was no longer distorted; he saw normally and functioned normally, even skiing and riding a motorcycle!

The key to vision returning to normal was that the subjects were allowed to move about and act freely, enabling the strange new visual data to be integrated with the subject’s experience of self-movement and self-sensation through touch. Subjects not allowed to move on their own, though they were pushed on gondolas through the environment, never experienced normal vision while wearing the distorting goggles.[14] To see the world we must be participants, not mere spectators.

Family

Markus and Kitayama confirm that we exist only in relationship: “Persons are only parts that when separated from the larger social whole cannot be fully understood. Such a holistic view is in opposition to the Cartesian, dualistic tradition that characterizes Western thinking and in which the self is separated from the object and from the natural world.”[15] In their convoluted, social science prose, Markus and Kitayama agree that the isolated, autonomous self is a cultural myth. A person in isolation from a larger whole, say nature or community, is a meaningless abstraction, an idealization that can only occur in philosophical texts and political theory.

If we could sever all our ties to nature, family, and community, then we would cease to be. For example, the DNA that each of us bears in every cell of our bodies came from our parents, half from our mother and half from our father. If we tried to remove every trace of parents from our lives, we literally would not exist.

The self exists only when connected to others. Members of a family share the same hopes, the same joys, the same sorrows, and the same experiences; each family member lives a common life, each a part of the others. Divorce severs certain legal obligations, not the ties between spouses and their children, which are inseparable. For better or for worse, a common life yokes persons of the same family together forever. We do not live separate, parallel lives; we are not separate, isolated selves; each member of a family is a part of the others.

Sometimes family life can be so extraordinarily painful and damaging that we wish to be rid of our family forever. A friend of mine in graduate school, John Sullivan, an Irish Catholic from South Boston, hated his family and wanted nothing to do with them, for reasons unknown to me. John escaped to Ann Arbor, cut himself off from his family, and even refused to answer telephone calls from his parents or siblings. Every weekend, he would drink and curse fate for giving him a family of drunks, nitwits, and general, all-around perverts. Somehow, his parents got my telephone number and communicated important messages to their son through me. One day, John left a message on my answering machine, telling me that he could not stand his family any longer and that he was moving to Australia, so his family would be out of his life forever. Three years later, I received a letter from John. He was in Australia; yet, every morning he woke up cursing his family. He had not learned that he could move to Mars and his family would still be inside of him.

The Disappearance of Isolated Self through Activity

For most of us, the best moments in life occur when we are totally absorbed in an activity, what is called “in the zone” by athletes and “flow” by psychologists. Flow is the experience of performing an activity at an optimal level, characterized by effortlessness and intense focus on the present; the self disappears, and the person becomes the performance. Rock climbers, surgeons, dancers, musicians, writers, chess players, mathematicians, indeed, actors in any field can lose the self, become the activity, and thereby experience flow.

Musician Barry Green observes that soloists, orchestral players, young students, and seasoned sessions players, alike, have experienced that “unique suspended moment when you actually become the emotional or sensory quality of the music—the colors, the water, the love.”[16] An expert rock climber describes the same experience: “You are so involved in what you are doing [that] you aren’t thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity. . . . You don’t see yourself as separate from what you are doing.”[17] A dancer says at times she becomes the dance: “Your concentration is very complete. Your mind isn’t wandering, you are not thinking of something else; you are totally involved in what you are doing.”[18]

Flow is not confined to specialized activities that require years to master. Any person can become lost in an everyday activity. A mother recounts the flow that takes place when she and her young daughter take turns reading to each other: “She reads to me, and I read to her, and that’s a time when I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world, I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing.”[19] Many fiction readers enter into an imaginary world so completely that they become the characters and the world around them recedes. Or even more simply, a friend of mine while walking in the woods with her husband experienced flow; she became one with the wind, rocks, and the trees when her inner monologue ceased momentarily. 

For virtually every performer, flow is a desirable state to be in. Personal problems vanish, the fear of failure disappears, mental clarity results, effortless performance happens, and joy ensues. The activity, then, becomes an end in itself. The desire for fame and public adulation—in effect, all distractions from the marketplace and social life—disappear.

The Second Great Lie: We Are Material Beings

In early America, before the Industrial Revolution, material desires were limited by nature and handicraft production. Later, two elements of capitalism—free markets and the division of labor—changed everything. Without the “great mass of inventions”[20] that continually flow from science and technology, capitalism would grind to a halt once markets were saturated by an abundance of goods. To continue to exist, the capitalist economy must constantly produce new consumer goods, not unlike a shark that must keep swimming or die. New inventions and technologies produce new goods and thus previously unknown desires, and in this way, we are all placed on the treadmill of desiring more and more, believing that prosperity equals happiness. If the iPhone (n) didn’t make us happy; no matter, the iPhone (n+1) will.

For many Americans, buying, owning, and consuming material goods are the essence of the good life. My sister-in-law told me, “Our society is based on buying stuff.” Whenever she is having a bad day at her job, nothing makes her happier than to go out after work to shop for a new wardrobe. She, at that moment, feels like a new person, prettier and smarter. In this late stage of capitalism, products are therapy for the disen­chanted soul; the right dress, haircut, or smartphone produces personal happiness and self-esteem, filling a void in the soul, for a short time.

Two hundred years of capitalism in America created for the wealthy and the poor a superabundance of goods. The typical Walmart Supercenter carries 142,000 different items. A shopper at Kroger’s or Whole Foods can buy blueberries in December grown in Peru, fresh flowers flown in from Columbia, and organic lamb imported from New Zealand.

An amazing abundance of material goods, and so little happiness. Novelist and social critic James Baldwin claimed that Americans possess the “world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewildering empty way of life.”[21] Can anyone dispute that the “American way of life has failed to make people happier or to make them better?”[22]

A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1988 and 2008 the rate of antidepressant use by all ages in the United States increased nearly 400 percent; 11 percent of Americans aged 12 years and over now take antidepressant medication.[23] Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented the marked increase in midlife mortality of white non-Hispanic Americans, the result of “deaths of despair” caused by drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide in a declining middle class.[24]

The entire project of capitalism has been realized in America, except its end, the happiness of humankind.

The Second Great Truth: We Are Part Human and Part Divine

After the mapping of the human genome, the new rage in psychology and neuroscience was to explain all human behavior in terms of genes and brain function, not just physical traits such as left or right handedness and tongue curling, folding, and rolling, but moral virtues such as generosity, courage, and temperance. Leda Cosmides, one of the founders of evolutionary psychology, proclaimed that the mind is a “set of information-processing devices, embodied in the human brain, that are responsible for all conscious and nonconscious mental activity, and that generate all behavior.”[25] Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA declared, “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[26] Marvin Minsky, a leading proponent of artificial intelligence, asserted, “You are a ‘meat machine.’”[27] Cosmologist Stephen Hawking announced, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”[28]

Such hubris common among scientists ignores the simple, irrefutable argument that brain function alone cannot even explain that we perceive.[29] Physicist Carl von Weizsäcker gives a killer argument that materialism is incapable of explaining how we see: “Light of 6,000 Å wavelength reaches my eye. From the retina, a chemico‑electrical stimulus passes through the optical nerve into the brain where it sets off another stimulus of certain motor nerves, and out of my mouth come the words: The apple is red. Nowhere in this description of the process, complete though it is, has any mention been made that I have had the color perception red.Of sense perception, nothing was said.”[30]

Here is a short amusing example of why our interior life does not result from brain function alone. During the day adenosine builds up in the brain to register the amount of time that has elapsed since a person awoke. When adenosine concentration peaks, a person feels the irresistible urge to sleep. The concentration of adenosine and the feeling of sleepiness are totally different realms. No matter how much a neuroscientist probes the brain with scans and chemical assays, she will never find sleepiness.

Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, too, acknowledges that explaining perception in terms of brain function alone is an impasse for neuroscience, and for materialism in general: “No matter how detailed and accurate [the] outside-objective description of color cognition might be, it has a gaping hole at its center because it leaves out” the experience of redness and all other perceptions.[31] He laments that the impasse results from a limit of present-day science: “Perhaps, science will eventually stumble on some unexpected method or framework for dealing with qualia—the immediate experiential perception of sensation, such as the redness of red or the pungency of curry—empirically and rationally, but such advances could easily be as remote from our present-day grasp as molecular genetics was to those living in the Middle Ages.”[32]

Mechanical, chemical, and electrical changes in the brain are not thoughts, desires, and emotions. The reason is obvious: the interior life of a person is nonmaterial—perceptions, emotions, and thoughts cannot be touched, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen.[33]

The Two Modes of the Mind

Every scientist and mathematician, professional and student, whom I have known, can give countless occurrences in their own lives of hard, fruitless labor preceding effortless knowing. In the classroom or around the seminar table, I have heard an excited “I see it” innumerable times, but never in my life as a theoretical physicist did I reflect with colleagues about the meaning of such an experience. As a result, for years, I remained in the dark about the deepest aspects of what we are. My enlightenment came only after reading Plato and Aristotle. Through straightforward reflection about the interior life, accompanied by clear thinking, Plato and Aristotle discovered two aspects of the mind, which they called dianoia and nous.*

The Latin words ratio and intellectus correspond to the older Greek terms dianoia and nous. The Greek is used here, because the Latin calls to mind the English words “reason” and “intellect,” which often are used as synonyms. The English words are substantially more limited and less precise than either the Latin or the Greek.

Labor

We commonly speak of knowing as defining, comparing, analyzing wholes into component parts, and drawing conclusions from first principles. Such discursive or step-by-step thinking the ancient Greek philosophers called dianoia. Sherlock Holmes is the epitome of dianoia at work. From the analysis of a cigar ash ground into a carpet, a scuff mark on a door, and the residue in a wineglass, he concludes the criminal is a lame aristocrat who resides in Kensington.

In discursive thinking, we either apply first principles or draw out their consequences. Dianoia operates step-by-step, almost in a mechanical fashion, repeating the same procedure again and again: A = B, B = C, therefore A = C; premise 1, premise 2, therefore, conclusion 1; etc.

Gift

Nous is the capacity for effortless knowing—to behold the truth the way the eye sees a landscape. The most famous story of sudden insight—of the “light bulb going off”—is the one told about Archimedes. The ruler Hiero II asked Archimedes to determine if the royal crown was truly made of pure gold or alloyed with silver. Archimedes knew that if the crown were not irregularly shaped, he could easily measure its volume and then check if its density were that of gold. But Archimedes could not figure out how to determine the volume of the crown. He was stumped; until one day when he stepped into his bath, the solution suddenly appeared to him: a given weight of gold displaces less water than an equal weight of silver. He shouted, “Eureka! Eureka!” and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. Archimedes’ experience shows us that the characteristics of nous are conciseness, suddenness, and immediate certainty.

Plato rightly contends that to directly grasp a truth is superior to arguing to it. Consequently, dianoia is always in the service of nous. In the Seventh Letter, he explains how “after practicing detailed comparisons of names and definitions and visual and other sense perceptions, after scrutinizing them in benevolent disputation by the use of question and answer without jealousy, at last in a flash of understanding . . . the mind, as it exerts all its powers to the limit of human capacity, is flooded with light.”[34]

In midlife, I had left materialism behind as a pernicious myth of the Dark Ages of Science. To call nous a product of unconscious thought as scientists had was to beat the same old drum—the brain alone explains all interior life. It made more sense to me to understand nous as the divine element within each person than to attribute our highest intellectual life to the murky unconscious mind hidden somewhere in the brain. To me—and I was in the good company of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas—dianoia was strictly human and nous was the divine element within us.[35]

The Third Great Lie: We Can Create Paradise on Earth

To partially restore humankind to the Garden of Eden, the only time in biblical history that man had real authority over nature, Francis Bacon proposed, in 1620, a new science based on experiment, where “those twin objects, human knowledge and human power, do really meet in one.”[36] In the new version of Genesis, the restoration of the lost Paradise was expected to come about not through faith in God, but from the “great mass of inventions”[37] that would flow forth from the new experimental science that would give mankind the command over nature that Adam had in the Garden of Eden. As a result, the descendants of the first man and woman could on their own return to Paradise, and in this way “subdue and overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity”[38] that resulted from the expulsion of Adam and Eve to East of Eden.

Bacon cautioned humankind to proceed with care with the new experimental method. He addressed “one general admonition to all—that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it with charity.”[39] The general admonition exposes an inherent flaw in the Baconian program to create Paradise on Earth. Bacon hoped to restore man to the Garden of Eden intellectually, but knew man could not be restored morally. In the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, laboratories would work for the benefit of life and the destruction of humanity, producing polio vaccine and thermonuclear weapons, aids for life and instruments of death.

The attempt to institute Paradise on Earth was a bold, hubristic project, entirely new to humankind, and unwittingly a vast social experiment that entailed an implicit disobedience to God, and for many, the denial of His existence. Karl Marx, for instance, rewrote history, replacing the unfolding relation between God and Man in the Hebrew Bible with a world history that is “nothing more than the creation of man through human labor;”[40] the Garden of Eden was in the future.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Friedrich Engels described the future Paradise: “When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” In the grand vision of the Manifesto, history ends with the disappearance of oppressors and freedom for all: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[41]

Instead of a Paradise on Earth, the social experiment in the Soviet Union to establish a worker’s promised land ended in a nightmare with the deaths of over 15,000,000 people; later, Chairman Mao with the Great Leap Forward would top the Soviets with the murder of 30,000,000 people. Maybe, Pol Pot should win the Gold Medal for total revolution. He and his Khmer Rouge restarted civilization in the Year Zero, the time when revolutionary ideals replaced all culture and traditions within a society. Slave labor, malnutrition, poor medical care, and executions killed a quarter of the population of Cambodia.

The Nazi rewrite of history eliminated the Jews is favor of the Aryans and replaced the Garden of Eden with an Aryan Paradise on Earth. To demonstrate that the Aryans were the chosen people, Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann murdered six million Jews and disposed of their bodies in mass graves and factory crematoria. The Nazi theologians argued, “How could the Jews be the chosen people, when we use their ashes for tire traction on ice? Therefore, we are the chosen people. Q.E.D.” Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, locates the foundation of Nazi doctrine as anti-Semitism. For the Nazis, he writes, “the Jews could not be ‘the people elected by God,’ since that’s what the Germans were.”[42]

Bacon imagined a glorious future for us once our ancestors made themselves the masters and possessors of nature; however, the ever-ascending arc of science and technology turned out to be not under human control. Physicists, neuroscientists, and computer and genetic engineers are the new sorcerer’s apprentices, having summoned great forces that they now cannot either control or banish. Science and technology became the masters and possessors of us.

No one knows how molecular nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence will transform human life, not the engineers at M.I.T., the geneticists at Stanford, or the computer scientists in Silicon Valley. Perhaps the ever-ascending arc of science and technology is headed to a thermonuclear war that annihilates humankind or possibly to a severe climate change that destroys Homo sapiens and most other creatures, but certainly not to a new Garden of Eden.

Hiroshima killed the comforting narrative that the progress of science and technology leads to universal happiness; the Gulag destroyed the utopian story of humans instituting a perfect political order; the Holocaust annihilated Nietzsche’s myth that the ascendance of the Overman, the perfect race, will raise humankind to a new level of existence. The grand storytelling of Post-Christianity is over.

The Third Great Truth: Our End Is Friendship with God

American culture instills in us a disposition to rebel against all authority. I have yet to meet an American— old or young, rich or poor, white or black—who does not bristle under the authority of another: “Who in the hell are you to tell me what to do?” We believe inequality prohibits genuine freedom, that subservience to any authority, human or divine, no matter how well disguised, is slavery.

Christopher Hitchens, the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, asks “Who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died?”[43] and answers that how happy he is that this “utter negation of human freedom” does not exist. But in the materialistic outlook of science that for some replaced Christianity, “every decision is a thoroughly mechanical process, the outcome of which is completely determined by the results of prior mechanical processes,”[44] and in this view, human freedom does not exist, for we are slaves of matter.[45]

Marx, too, held that a person could be free and independent only if God does not exist: “A man who lives by the grace of another regards himself as a dependent being. But I live completely by the grace of another if I owe him not only the maintenance of my life but also its creation, if he is the source of my life. My life necessarily is grounded outside itself if it is not my own creation.”[46]

The twentieth century, the century of mass political murder, shows that individually and collectively our freedom is virtually unlimited; we can refuse to become who we truly are, embrace a self of our own choosing, act out of self-interest, deny the common good, and even thumb our nose at God, which is not to say that we are autonomous—living by one’s own laws that violate human nature always leads to disaster.

To freely abandon God, to exist in oneself, and to seek satisfaction in one’s own being is not quite to become a nonentity but is to verge on non-being.[47] Hell is not the fiery pit of received Christianity, but the complete separation from God—forever.

In the Gospel of Love, Jesus is not a king, a tyrant, or a despot; he humbly shows us that we are ignorant of who we truly are and that the suffering of humankind is inextricably bound to a narrow self-love, a faulty love that makes a person think he or she is the center of the cosmos. To repair this flaw in humanity, Jesus made a radical break with ancient Greek thought; he introduced a new understanding of love, agápē, God’s selfless love for human persons, a love that cannot be earned and excludes no one. Such love gives and expects nothing in return.[48]

For Aristotle, friendship with a god was an impossibility. He argued friends must be more or less equal; persons much inferior in station do not expect to be friends with kings.[49] But a god is widely separated from every human being;[50] therefore, no person can be a friend with a god.

Jesus calls us to friendship with God by loving the way He does. When we have friendship with a person, for his sake, we love everyone intimately connected to our friend, be they his parents, spouse, or children. Indeed, if we truly love our friend, we love even those close to him who hate or injure us, although they are not our friends, because they do not wish us well.[51] Jesus tells us that God loves all persons, for “He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rains on the just and on the unjust.”[52] If we have a true friendship with God, we will love the same way He does; we will love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, even though we can never be friends with them.

In the deepest sense, the Christian life in this world is building up a friendship with God, beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John, “If we love [agapōmen] one another, God abides in us and His love [agápē] is perfected in us.”[53] When God dwells in us, we are still in the world and yet lifted beyond it; we obtain a new perspective and see the divinity in each person, in the mailman, the bank teller, the butcher at Whole Foods, and the obnoxious teenager down the street with his blaring boom box.

Jesus preaches, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[54] The Apostle Peter concludes, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness . . . [so that we] may become partakers of the divine nature.”[55] Many Church Fathers were fond of telling their brethren, “God became man so man might become God.” The aim of human life is friendship with God and deification.

Endnotes

 

[1]Richard L. Rapson, Denials of Doubt: An Interpretation of American History (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), p. 5.

[2]Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Régime and the French Revolu­tion, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Doubleday, 1955 [1856]), p. 96.

[3] Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 16.

[4] Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation,” Psychological Review 98 (1991): 224.

[5] Clifford Geertz, “On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding,” American Scientist 63 (January-February 1975): p. 48.

[6] J. C. Carothers, “Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word,” Psychiatry 22 (Nov. 1959).

[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Anchor: 1971), p. 360.

[8] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), Appendix U, pp. 731-733. For narrative consistency, several verb tenses in the text have been changed to the past.

[9] John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: Norton, 2009), p. 5.

[10] Vivek H. Murthy, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic,” Harvard Business Review (Sept. 27, 2017).

[11] See Bob Dylan, “Marchin’ to the City,”on the album Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.

[12] See The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby” on the album Revolver.

[13] See Ivo Kohler, The Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World, trans. Harry Fiss (New York: International Universities Press, 1964).

[14] See Richard Held, “Plasticity in Sensory-Motor Systems,” Scientific American 213 (November 1965): 84-94.

[15] Markus and Kitayama, p. 227.

[16] Barry Green, The Inner Game of Music (New York: Doubleday, 1986), p. 14.

[17] Quoted by Mihaly Csilszentmihalyi, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975), p. 39.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Quoted by Mihaly Csilszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 53.

[20] Francis Bacon, The New Organon and Related Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960 [1620]), p. 103.

[21] James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes,” Daedalus, 89, No. 2 (Spring 1960): 374.

[22] Ibid., p. 375.

[23] NCHS Data Brief, “Antidepressant Use in Persons Aged 12 and Over: United States, 2005–2008.” Available http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm.

[24] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/casetextsp17bpea.pdf.

[25] Leda Cosmides, Interview by Alvaro Fischer and Roberto Araya for the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, https://www.cep.ucsb.edu/ledainterview.htm.

[26] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, (New York: Scrib­ner’s, 1994), p. 3.

[27] The quotation “the brain happens to be a meat machine” is widely attributed to Marvin Minsky, although I could not find the phrase “meat machine” in any article or book written by him.

[28] Stephen Hawking, quoted by David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality (New York: Viking, 1997), pp. 177-178.

[29] At a public lecture sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute, I heard Francis Crick publicly admit that the inability of neuroscientists to explain sensory qualities solely in terms of brain activity seems insurmountable. Yet, he hoped that the problem would unexpectedly disappear, like other seemingly impossible difficulties had in science.

[30] C. F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature, trans. Fred D. Wieck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 142‑43.

[31] V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 248.

[32] Ibid., p. 249. Ramachandran’s definition of qualia is on page 248 and is incorporated in this quotation.

[33] For a detailed discussion of the nonmateriality of our interior life, see George Stanciu, “Materialism: The False God of Modern Science,” http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/07/materialism-false-god-modern-science.html.

[34]Plato, Seventh Letter, trans. L. A. Post,in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 344b.

[35] For a detailed discussion, see George Stanciu, “The Divine Element Within,” https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2017/06/divine-element-within-george-stanciu.html.

[36] Francis Bacon, The New Organon and Related Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960 [1620]), p. 29.

[37]Ibid., p. 103.

[38] Ibid., p. 23.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 357.

[41] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm.

[42] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 179.

[43] Christopher Hitchens, “Introduction,” The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), p. xxii.

[44] Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B (2004) 359: 1781. Available http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/GreeneCohenPhilTrans-04.pdf.

[45] See George Stanciu, “Determinism: Science Commits Suicide,” https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/06/determinism-science-commits-suicide.html.

[46] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 356. Italics in the original.

[47] See Augustine, City of God, Bk. 14, Ch. 13.

[48] In the King James Version of the Bible, agápē is often translated as charity, a word that now means to most people giving handouts to the homeless or contributing to United Way. In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, agápē is translated as love, an ambiguous word in English that can mean sexual love, affection for another, or even a strong like, say for a sport or a food.

In Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, love is divided into four kinds, storgē, philía, erōs, and agápē. For an overview of these four loves see George Stanciu, “Does Love Always Lead to Suffering?”, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/03/love-always-lead-suffering-george-stanciu.html; for a detailed discussion, see C. S. Lewis, Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960). 

[49] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. VIII, Ch. 7, 1159a1.

[50] Ibid., 1159a5.

[51] See Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second Part of the second Part, Question 23, Reply to Objection 3.

[52] Matthew 5:45. All quotations from the Bible are from the RSV.

[53] 1 John 4:12.

[54] John 10:10.

[55] 2 Peter 1:3, 4.

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