How do we maintain our faith in human nature when violence is loosed and innocents die? Robin Kornman points us to three 20th-century thinkers who looked into the abyss and yet asserted the transcendent goodness and meaning of life.
I’m writing this in the Asian Reading Room at the Library of Congress. Around me, here in one of the world’s great repositories of knowledge, the library staff are rushing in their quiet way to list which of their treasures are irreplaceable. They must remove these to a bomb-proof shelter. These days, even the most cloistered scholar must look war and political evil in the eye.
A problem that has been abstract for this generation, but terribly real in the last century, is now sadly real again. Americans are face to face with the problem of human nature and evil. The evil seems to wear two masks: it has appeared in the external form of terrorism, and we fear its appearance in the internal form of intolerance and repression.
Now is the time to take instruction from a group of courageous writers and thinkers who were forced to confront the question of human evil on a scale we can only now begin even to imagine. These are the modernists who saw the vast horror of two world wars, who faced the engulfing evil of fascism, and nevertheless, against all evidence, affirmed the existence of a transcendent human nature and inherent meaningfulness. In the face of worldwide political evil, they taught of ultimate good.
For them the world fell suddenly into two camps: the civilized Allies led by the British Empire and the United States, and the fascist Axis powers, who seemed capable of every sort of inhumanity. Even before they knew the outcome, the conflict itself had sapped the faith of artists and authors across the world. For both the Germans and the Japanese had been symbols of the power of civilization to perfect the virtues of the human spirit. How could thoughtful, educated people-their souls enriched with religion, their minds civilized by music, philosophy, and art-be capable of such evil?
The answer for most post-war thinkers was that good was not inherent and wisdom was not natural. It was a kind of embittered relativism, seasoned strangely with bursts of national or ethnic patriotism: Art must be experimental, for the past can be no guide, having led to the bloodbaths of World Wars I and II. Philosophy can possess no wisdom, for the Germans were master philosophers before they embraced fascism. Religion could offer no shelter, for perfectly serious Christians had been concentration camp guards.
Thus mainstream thought for the post-war generation of thinkers and artists alternated between disillusionment and narrow patriotism. Human nature had turned en masse to political evil. The Allies may have beaten fascism, but after the “victory” traditional civilization was still in ruins. The answer for most was the multi-faceted world of experiments in expression that we call modernism.
But some, having looked into the same abyss, nevertheless took another direction-a spiritual direction that upheld hope in human nature and history-and began to teach what Aldous Huxley called “the perennial philosophy.” This is the uncynical belief taught by all Asian philosophy and some Western mystics that the divine is immanent. Whatever consciousness can touch is divine by nature, and through spiritual practice can be realized to be so.
Many of the Western intellectuals who believed this turned to Eastern thought late in their careers. They may have begun as spokesmen for modernism, but their ultimate solution to the metaphysical problems of the post-war generation was the idea that spirituality worked where science, talk and political commitment had not.
These were the intellectual children of the two world wars, who had struggled with the fall from grace of traditional Western civilization. European authors in particular experienced philosophical and historical nightmares hard to share with Americans, seemingly protected between two deep oceans. Only the American soldiers themselves had been face to face with the same vast evil, and it took them generations to express their horror.
The advanced European thinkers of the fifties saw the World Wars as a refutation of 19th-century European culture. The supposedly civilized great powers of western Europe had fallen upon each other in two unexampled feasts of bloodshed. Germany, which was supposed to be the “land of poets and philosophers,” had willingly placed a mad criminal in power. The romantic nationalist and republican philosophies, and the classical philosophies supposedly inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, had prevented nothing, protected nothing. Both the hierarchical values of Catholicism and the democratic values of Protestantism had easily complied with fascism.
T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, “The Wasteland,” made its general indictment of Western civilization. And Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming,” became the text every schoolchild read to learn that the old values had fallen, that now was the time when:
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”
In response, most modernists did not provide a new creed, a new system by which one could live or reconstruct civilization. They simply placed their art at the disposal of the universal postwar critique: that the old civilization had fallen and that one did not know how to make life meaningful without the religious and humanistic values of that vanished world. In this context the authors who could assert a transcendental truth showed a special breed of courage.
Viktor Frankl: Mysticism in a Concentration Camp
Viktor Frankl was one of the most important spokesmen for a non-materialist approach to moral life. His greatest work does not literally refer to Asia or meditation practice and yet, by his example, he laid a foundation for other modernist mystical thinkers. Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who survived the Nazi death camps and derived from the experience an approach to psychotherapy based on finding inherent meaning in life. He called his technique “logotherapy.” His most influential work is Man’s Search for Meaning, a book one can read quickly, living within the world he projects, or slowly, as a wisdom book.
In it he describes analytically, almost scientifically, his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz. That should have been a situation where nothing had meaning, for the intention of the guards was to turn humans into animals, to reduce the lives of internees to a fruitless struggle for individual survival, and then to kill them like rats.
As Frankl readily admits, it was impossible for any inmate to show ordinary humanity without dying immediately from a slight disadvantage in the struggle for survival. Only one in twenty-four survived the experience and this was known perfectly well by the prisoners. The only way to survive in the death camps was at the expense of others. If, for example, a certain transport was destined to take a specific number of prisoners to the gas chambers, the survivor must act accordingly: “With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport. … On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence. … We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles … we know; the best of us did not return.”
These terms of existence stripped away whatever of culture and civilization was not rooted in the core of human experience. Frankl details with an attitude of scientific exactitude, and without ideology, moralizing or fancy theory, precisely what is left after this dissolving of boundaries has taken its course. His authority is unquestionable because in the narrative you see him, a cultured, sophisticated and sensitive psychotherapist, survive the specific horrors of a universe where being human is admitted no sacredness.
When Frankl described his personal, wordless discovery that there is something transcendent in the human condition, it was the first and most authoritative positive response to T.S. Eliot’s complaint that Western civilization had collapsed because its values were hollow. Frankl does not attempt to set up a new system of morality or to uphold the old one. In fact, he is not given to judgement at all. But he gives positive evidence for the underlying indestructible character of humanity. He argues that there is a basic nature to humanness, a nature that is other than the instinctual drives and mechanistic forces enshrined in every modernist theory.
Where Freud proposes an instinctual subconscious common to animals and humans, Frankl proposes another mentality that he calls “the spiritual unconscious.” This mind is motivated not by the will to pleasure, as in Freud, or the will to power, as in Adlerian psychology, but by what Frankl calls “the will to meaning.” Frustration that one’s life seems to lack meaning is not, therefore, a psychological disorder or a sign of ill-health: “Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development.”
Frankl’s writings after Man’s Search for Meaning gradually reveal the debt he owes to Buddhism and Hinduism, a debt he has in common with other Existentialist thinkers from Heidegger and Karl Jaspers to the French phenomenologists. They speak, using Jaspers’ beautiful expression from Philosophy I, of the “inaccessible ground of human awareness.” This is Frankl’s “spiritual unconscious,” so different from the Freudian one. He also calls it Der unbewusste Gott, “the unconscious god.”
This is a knowing which is within us, which seeks meaning, and which cannot be known analytically or as an object, but which underlies existence. He quotes the Vedas: “That which does the seeing, cannot be seen; that which does the hearing, cannot be heard; and that which does the thinking, cannot be thought.” Buddhists might call it the dharmakaya or buddhanature, and their practices, like those of Jaspers and Frankl, seek to know it but do not analyze it materialistically or take it for a thing.
This search for “being which underlies being” Frankl tested in the unforgiving laboratory of the Nazi death camps. Tempered in such a fire, his philosophy rings with authenticity.
Czeslaw Milosz and Slavic Depression
Czeslaw Milosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, is another author who sought to find positive answers in face of the abyss. Milosz was actually a Polish-speaking Lithuanian who gained his poetic voice in the period between the two World Wars. His most important book is The Captive Mind, an analysis of the Polish intelligentsia under communism.
Poland at the end of the war knew not one moment of freedom. The blood-thirsty Nazi occupiers were instantly replaced by brutal Soviet invaders. Polish intellectuals were slowly transformed into Marxist propagandists, their minds captive and gradually enslaved. There was no hint that there would ever be a change.
And so the natural vision of a Polish intellectual who lived through the middle of the 20th century was one of unrelieved political evil: no saving grace from a liberating American army, no hope that sanity would reign in the political sphere, no grounds for dreaming that personal life could freely seek the truth, no room for any truth beyond strict materialism.
Like Frankl, Milosz is convincing because he does not resort to controversial idealistic generalizations. His vision of the mental enslavement of Eastern Europe is reported by a series of detailed case studies of Polish poets who collaborated with dialectical materialism in order to survive the Russian takeover. In writing this, Milosz alienated himself both from the community of thinkers still in Eastern Europe and from the eternal Polish emigré community in Paris. He became a man alone, bereft of an audience for his poetry because he could only write in Polish; bereft of a community because of his institutionally embarrassing honesty.
This makes his book, which could be no more than political reportage, a work of courage and transcendental wisdom, one of the quintessential writings of the 20th century. It is strange that such a negative piece could be so uplifting, but his attacks imply a faith in human nature he never specifies in so many words.
His case studies in complicity and capitulation are all poets he admires, with whom he feels a profound sympathy, and his treatment of them is sarcastic but sympathetic. There is a profound humanity of sadness in his treatment of the “problem of Eastern Europe” that lingers, as a matter of fact, through all of his work. This special tone, a kind of enlightened tristesse, is the sign of a person who senses the existence of wisdom and ultimate good but is too humble to assert it.
In his recently published letters to Thomas Merton, Milosz is characteristically proud, humble and sad at the same time: “In fact I love those people against whom I directed my anger much more than I show. I did not succeed in showing my love and my whole thought…”
Merton, a Trappist monk with Zen leanings, shows in his answer to Milosz the book’s positive virtues: “Whatever you may feel about The Captive Mind…it is certainly a book that had to be written and evidently such a book could not be written unless it were written with terrible shortcomings. Good will come of the suffering involved for you and for others. … It is one of the very few books about the writer and Communism, or about Communism itself, that has any real value as far as I can see.”
Merton characterizes himself and Milosz as free thinkers who were “in the middle … caught between two millstones … intellectual(s) caught between tyrannies.” This ability of Milosz to speak from the middle, a place where there is no ideological ground but only honesty, showed a leaning to a spirituality that seeks the highest, a fact he makes literal only in his later writings.
Aldous Huxley and the Perennial Philosophy
Aldous Huxley was the quintessential postwar intellectual. His novels critiqued the fading English upper class, which had succeeded in defeating Hitler but had failed to provide leadership towards a new spiritual life after the war. Huxley became famous beyond literary circles when he wrote Brave New World, but his really important work is The Perennial Philosophy, which makes a clear case for the importance of meditation.
In it Huxley reports his discovery of mystical practice as a solution to the disillusionment of the postwar world. His famous novels had been pure disillusion leavened with only a tentative note of hope. Now he could report that there was a specific saving grace still within Western civilization, a philosophy born of the direct experience of God in contemplative practice. This was the true fount of philosophy and ethics, the ecstatic experience of the West’s few, precious Neo-Platonic, Sufi, Christian and Kabalistic mystics.
According to Huxley all of these philosophies agree at the level of practice with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Neo-Confucianism. The key idea is that the divine, the absolute, the ultimate is immanent in the world. Ordinary material things seem to be mere matter, but at their core they are God or buddhanature or whatever the particular tradition uses to call the ultimate.
The book is actually a stitching together of hundreds of quotes from Western and Eastern scriptures and patristic writings. If Huxley were 30 years old today he would not have written this book, because a mind so convinced of its point would have studied Tibetan or Sanskrit or Chinese and written technical spiritual manuals. But this was the point in history where one needed to prove that mysticism was the answer to the modern dilemma, and so it may be that nothing will ever quite replace Huxley’s superb presentation.
Let us end this article strangely with a book by Aldous Huxley that deserves attention but is actually out of print: The Grey Eminence, a Study in Religion and Politics. This is a case study of a Catholic contemplative monk named Francois le Clerc du Tremblay, known as Father Joseph, who lived in the time of Louis XIII.
Father Joseph was one of the great Christian contemplatives of his century. His journals indicate that in his complex spiritual exercises, he actually experienced face-to-face the presence of God. But Joseph was also highly political and was closely allied with the Machiavellian leader of the French state, Cardinal Richelieu. Although a monk, he became the head of the French secret police.
Richelieu’s foreign policy was to oppose the Austro-Hungarian Empire and see if he could destroy its power, so that France in the coming century could have European hegemony. Father Joseph, a French patriot, served him brilliantly in this scheme. In the act, although a monk, he became one of the causes of the continuation of the Thirty Years War, a complex religious war that pitted Catholicism against a variety of Protestants.
The Thirty Years War was so devastating that it reduced the German-speaking areas of Europe to cannibalism. In Huxley’s view, the basis for a healthy German state was destroyed by this war and the seeds of the chaos of the 20th century were planted exactly at this moment. And one of the causes of the terrible, wasteful Thirty Years War was Europe’s greatest contemplative. It is a problem with which we are becoming sadly familiar at this very moment: How can such smart people do such evil things? How can a man genuinely devoted to religion engage in such systematic harm?
But an interesting aftereffect of this war was something only Aldous Huxley could have reported on-the effect of this political policy on Father Joseph’s meditation. In the last years of his life the monk reported that he could for some reason no longer experience the presence of God in his contemplative practice. Huxley analyzes Joseph’s spiritual techniques and concludes that even a merely political involvement with violence makes it impossible to experience personal realization. Joseph never killed or tortured anybody himself, he never personally committed an assassination. But he ordered such things and he assiduously collected reports from his army of spies on these aggressive acts. The result was that he polluted his own contemplative practice and died embittered with his life despite the utter success of his politics.