I’ve got a whole thing brewing with respect to that title, but it’s going to take a while to work it all out, which will likely take several entries over the next few days. It was set off by a sequence of events.
First, Greg Swann writes me sometime last December to remind me that the world actually isn’t going to hell in a handbasket. I think he cunningly waited until just before the Christmas holiday to tell me that, counting on the whole joy of life at that time of year just overwhelming me. It did, actually.
Then, longtime mutual friends Billy Beck and Greg get into it over that "to-hell-in-a-handbasket" thing. I’m not going to rehash the debate in detail (see their websites). Essentially, Billy thinks things are getting worse and that we’re reversing the progress gained in the Enlightenment. He refers to this state of affairs as the Endarkenment. Greg thinks things are getting better because mankind is advanced by a few tremendously great people who come along to grace mankind from time-to-time, and in-between, most everything else is just noise that can be disregarded. To Billy, it matters greatly that so many people are so stupid. To Greg, it’s irrelevant. They don’t matter. These, of course, are my own summaries based on my own understanding of their positions. They are welcome to correct them.
Next, I rekindle a debate with a long-time friend that has been going on for years, on and off. ‘P’ thinks things are getting worse, too, but unlike Billy, it’s because we aren’t serving the "higher" ideals he believes are important. To ‘P’, we have become materialist in the philosophical sense (not the shopping sense), which essentially means that people regard existence as just a bunch of particles interacting with one-another. There’s no meaning. Morality is just "an idea" that competes in the marketplace with other ideas. His macro-description of this material world is "The Market," by which he means the amoral, super-effective, valuable productivity of the human species (he doesn’t mean "marketplace"). He sees this "Market" as essential, but it must be balanced by the spiritual, by which he means universal truth, meaning, beauty. He does not mean "God" in the literal sense of a white-bearded man in a chair in the clouds.
When this debate began, ‘P’ thought me a diehard materialist; and I thought him a diehard mystic. That’s all been resolved, but yet we still don’t seem to see eye-to-eye on a lot.
I’m generally with Greg in this whole debate (things getting better), but I also think that what Billy does is of some political value (not to say that Greg doesn’t–he can speak for himself). After all, individuals read his blog in good number and it serves to have stupidities pointed out. It’s certainly not going to hurt, having fewer stupids around. But I also think that his concept of "The Endarkenment" has metaphorical value. In fact, in one discussion with Billy, I wrote that I never actually thought he meant it literally. In short, I think it’s great hyperbole.
Then, yesterday, I was reading Billy’s blog and he linked to a post of his from last summer. I had read it before, and I’ve explicitly known this truth for years, but this time one sentence went off like a shot:
It remains nonetheless a fact that it — the root antagonism — is between collectivism and individualism, to necessarily include its ethical and political implications
In a flash, I realized what this debate with ‘P’ was all about. It was not about the concrete vs. the spiritual, per se, or whether or not there are ideals to serve, or even what those ideals are. It was about whether ideals pertain to individuals or society, i.e., collectives of individuals. "Societal ideals" are usually thought to be "higher" ideals–which in my experience means they’re more important than individuals. Indeed. When someone talks to you about "higher" ideals, what they mean is that someone’s individual interests are going to be sacrificed for the sake of someone else’s, or on behalf of a group.
Then I recalled something ‘P’ argued. He argued that the debate over altruism is just more materialism, because it’s just an argument over things that take place in the concrete world. In other words, it’s not serving yourself, or others, that’s of importance, but serving ideals. I had never really seen that argument made before, but I believe I know where it comes from. It’s Orientalist, where the ego is suppressed, the world of concrete existence is the lesser half of existence, and the spiritual realm is the greater half. In actuality, there’s no dichotomy between the body and mind. At best, it’s a useful model, but it doesn’t exist in reality. In reality, we’re either serving our whole selves, or we’re not. In other words, you can’t "feed your body and starve your soul." When you feed your body, you’re feeding a miserable soul or a joyous one.
Let’s take something that everyone agrees is an ideal: justice. We all want justice, right? It’s an ideal, and since we’re imperfect beings, our actions don’t always result in just outcomes, even with every good intention. Justice, as an ideal, essentially means that everyone gets what they deserve–no more, and no less. So, how do we make justice a "higher" ideal? Think about it. It’s self-contradictory, isn’t it? How can you deliver justice on a societal scale, unless you are delivering it on an individual scale? The only alternative is to claim the contradiction that you have achieved "higher" justice by means of injustice to some individuals.
Peel back the facade of every "higher" ideal you can think of, and you’ll always find such a contradiction.
…the root antagonism [–] is between collectivism and individualism
Ideals are essential. Ideals are what differentiate us from common animals. We strive for ideals because we’re human beings. But ideals pertain only to individuals. Any other pursuit is a stark and insolent contradiction in terms.