Aristotle's Secret

Those of my readers who have looked on from a distance as a large car wreck took place have some idea of my state of mind over the last week. Each of the three high-stakes poker games I mentioned in last week’s post—the European financial mess, the evolution (or devolution) of Occupy Wall Street, and the seismic shifts in world politics driven by the rise of China—have continued along trajectories that are pretty much guaranteed to end messily.

In Europe, the spotlight has shifted from Greece to Italy as investors around the world bail out of Italian government bonds, driving interest rates above the 7% threshold that, by general consent, separates investments from junk. There’s a new Italian government, and a new Greek government, and no doubt there will be new governments in other countries before long, but since nobody is willing to do the one thing that will fix the problem—that is, admit that debts that can’t be paid will, in fact, not be paid, and allow the banks that unwisely lent money to deadbeat nations to go under, as capitalist economic theory says they should—changing governments won’t change anything significant. I wish more people remembered what happened the last time European governments put allegiance to a global financial regime ahead of the needs of their own people; that was in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, for those who need a reminder. We’ll talk more about that down the road a bit.

On this side of the water, the Occupy Wall Street protest and its equivalents in other American cities seem to have peaked for now, and the authorities have responded predictably by wading in with pepper spray and billy clubs. We’re still early in this particular game, though, far too early for either side to have a shot at winning or losing. Whether or not the protesters retain a token presence in urban centers over the winter, the coming of warm weather, the continuing decline of the American economy, and the public embarrassment of an upcoming presidential campaign in which nobody’s willing to talk about any of the real issues, will bring the protest kettle back to a steady boil in the new year.

China’s emergence as the next superpower, finally, touched off a flurry of undiplomatic sniping. Obama, scrambling once again to shore up his fading reelection prospects, tried to talk tough about Chinese monetary policy at an international meeting, demanding that China "play by the rules." The Chinese retorted tartly that they were quite willing to play by rules that were decided on fairly by all parties, but submitting to a set of rules the United States established to shore up its own interests to everyone else’s disadvantage did not interest them. Across a wide range of issues, from trade policy to saber-rattling over Iran, China continues to carve out a position diametrically opposed to US interests in the face of increasingly ineffectual US opposition. How that will play out in the long run is a very good question, and will probably determine a great deal of the way that the 21st century plays out.

All this, and the twilight of American empire that gives it its context and importance, will be central to a series of posts I plan on beginning here in the not too distant future. In the meantime, though, there are a few more points about magic I want to discuss, and weave back into the discussion of Green Wizardry that has guided this blog for almost a year and a half now.

The elements of magical philosophy I’ve covered in recent posts here on The Archdruid Report aren’t simply an odd fit for a discussion on peak oil; they also contradict some of the most basic habits of contemporary thought. Thus it’s come as a pleasant surprise to see how many of my readers have been able to keep up with the discussion, and even to anticipate the issues to be raised in the next post. My post two weeks ago, A Choice of Contemplations, was no exception; several commenters thought about the principle that "what you contemplate, you imitate," noted that a great many people in the peak oil movement spend a great deal of time contemplating worst case scenarios, and worried aloud that this habit might conceivably help bring those worst case scenarios about.

To some extent, that concern is based on a misunderstanding I’ve addressed already. Just as contemplating a toaster oven may make you imitate a toaster oven, but it won’t make one magically appear on your kitchen counter, contemplating a global disaster won’t necessarily make global disaster more likely—though it’s fair to note that it may make you imitate the behavior that you believe is going to cause global disaster, if your contemplations focus on that behavior intensely enough. This last point is a real issue, not only in the peak oil scene, but all through the spectrum of movements that have risen in response to industrial society’s failure to deal with its dependence on the planet it plunders so recklessly: far too many people in these movements devote more attention to what they oppose than to what they value.

Sometimes this gets taken to a familiar and embarrassing extreme. I suspect all of us have met people who are fixated on the belief that some particular set of bad people are personally and malevolently responsible for whatever grievances they happen to feel most acutely. Talk to them about anything, and pretty quickly the conversation will come around to the badness of the bad people and the bad things they’re doing, whoever and whatever happen to be the object of their obsessions. Wind them up and get them going, in fact, and quite often it all starts to sound weirdly like an infatuated teenager talking about the girl of his dreams. From a psychological standpoint, of course, this is exactly what’s going on; the actions of the putative villains, like the charms of the girl, have become an inkblot onto which wholly internal psychological needs and emotions are projected.

Still, it’s not necessary to go to this extreme to get caught up in contemplation of what you don’t want to imitate. There are doubtless plenty of reasons why so many people in the climate change movement never got around to accepting the sharp reductions in their personal carbon footprints that they wanted to impose on everyone else, but I’ve long suspected that too much contemplation of what they thought they were fighting was one of them. There were some people in that movement who tried to sketch out visions of a low-carbon future that was more interesting and more appealing than the present, but by and large the movement presented the world with a choice between a continuation of business as usual by low-carbon means, on the one hand, and planetary dieoff on the other. The ineffective but familiar strategy of trying to get people to change by scaring the bejesus out of them—sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia!—took over from there, preaching vehemently about greedy polluters ravaging the Earth in an orgy of conspicuous consumption. The result was to make this image so powerful that a great many people in the climate change movement were drawn into contemplating it, and thus imitating it.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this trap. The most obvious, and most basic, is to go out of your way to spend more time contemplating what you value than what you oppose. It’s not necessary to have a comprehensive plan for a better world already in mind, since the levels of your brain and nervous system that respond to contemplation with imitation don’t need abstract plans, and can’t really use them. What they need are good clear images that express the values you want to cultivate. That’s why advertising has so little conceptual content and so many emotionally compelling images, for example; the thaumaturgists of Madison Avenue know perfectly well what they’re doing—which is one of the many good reasons why you should scrap your TV sooner rather than later. The same method works as well when you choose the images, instead of letting big corporations choose them for you.

There’s a step beyond this, one that combines several of the principles we’ve discussed here already, but the best way to make sense of this further step involves a detour involving ancient Greece, modern California, and one of the more interesting figures in 20th-century occultism, the Austrian philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner was an oddity in the occult community of his time, a genuine scholar—he’s the guy who edited the standard edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s scientific works—whose visionary experiences led him first into a variety of early 20th century occult circles and then to the creation of his own highly original teachings. The movement he founded, Anthroposophy, was one of the options I seriously considered, back in the day when I was first looking for a source of occult training. That didn’t turn out to be the path I chose, but even so, Steiner’s work on biodynamic agriculture has had a lot of influence on my own gardening methods, and if I’d had children, it’s a good bet that they would have gone to a school that used the Waldorf system of education that Steiner founded.

His particular system of occult (or, as his followers like to say, "spiritual-scientific") teachings covers a lot of ground, enough to fill a couple of good-sized bookshelves, and—as the examples just mentioned suggest—strays fairly regularly into territory, such as gardening and education, that aren’t normally associated with the occult. One core theme of his teaching, though, has a direct bearing on what we’re discussing here. Steiner’s work drew extensively on central European traditions of occult Christianity, but his Christianity differs from the standard version in an intriguing way. Most varieties of Christianity map the moral dimension of existence onto a binary spectrum extending from God to Satan. Steiner argued instead that there were two powers of evil—he called them Ahriman and Lucifer respectively—who were as opposed to each other as both were to the powers of good, represented in this age of the world by the Archangel Michael.

While that redefinition came out of Steiner’s own visionary experiences, he was following the lead of one of the towering minds of the Western tradition, the ancient Greek polymath Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics, arguably the most influential work on the philosophy of ethics ever penned, Aristotle argued that any given virtue was not the opposite of one vice but the midpoint between two. Courage, he pointed out, was opposed to cowardice, but it was equally opposed to the sort of rash stupidity that ignores the existence of danger; real generosity is no more compatible with greed than with spendthrift wastefulness, and so on through the catalog of the virtues. For most of two thousand years, Christian philosophers have coped uneasily with the mismatch between Aristotle’s ethical insights and the mythic imagery of their own faith; Steiner found what is certainly one of the more thoughtful ways through the tangle.

Ahriman and Lucifer—well, those of my readers who have been to California’s two most famous cities already know them well enough to pick them out in a perp walk. Los Angeles is as Ahrimanic a city as you’ll find this side of the underworld. Everyone there seems to be there exclusively for the purposes of getting rich, getting famous, getting laid, and getting stoned, not necessarily in that order. That’s the Ahrimanic end of evil—wallowing in material experience, the coarser the better, until you drown in it. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Luciferic capital of North America, San Francisco, where the reigning vice is the spiritual pride that sees oneself as too good for the world as it is, and turns every interaction into a display of one’s self-defined superiority to the rest of the cosmos. Weirdly, an identical polarity existed through much of the 19th century on the opposite side of the continent, between gaudily greedy New York City and holier-than-thou Boston; the prevalence of the pattern suggests that something in the American character, at least, is well described by Steiner’s theory.

According to the metaphor, there ought to be a place halfway in between where neither the Ahrimanic nor the Luciferic influence holds sway, and the good that is opposed by both these evils comes into its own. Unfortunately the large city that’s more or less midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is Fresno, which has as yet shown no sign of rising to its cosmic destiny, and Hartford, Connecticut—which is roughly halfway between Boston and New York—seems to have gotten through the 19th century without any particular gleam of archangelic radiance. Whether or not this says something worth noticing about America’s capacity to manifest its ideals, or simply about the fact that every metaphor sooner or later hits the point of diminishing returns, the concept central to Aristotle’s philosophy and Steiner’s vision—that it’s possible to run off the rails on either side of the track—is the thing I’m hoping to communicate here.

Apply that concept to the pervasive binaries that run through contemporary thinking about the future and some of the strategy that’s guided this blog since its inception may be a little more clear to my regular readers. When The Archdruid Report was launched five and a half years ago, the most common of those binaries was the insistence that the future of industrial society had to be either an endless trajectory of continued progress, on the one hand, or a sudden cataclysmic dieoff on the other. The experiment of consistently proposing a more plausible third option—the option of decline, which after all is what’s happened to every past civilization that’s overshot its resource base, as ours has—seems to have played some role in helping the peak oil scene get past that fixation.

The same principle has other uses, though. Let’s say you’re faced with a status quo that is obviously problematic and headed for trouble, and you want to envision an alternative. Even among thoughtful people these days, it’s all too common to meet this sort of situation by imagining the opposite of the status quo as your alternative, and assuming that since the status quo is bad, the opposite must be good. There are some obvious problems with this sort of thinking, and some that may not be so obvious; we’ll be talking in another week or so about the way that binary opposition locks into place whatever it sets out to oppose, for example.

Put Aristotle’s and Steiner’s logic to work, though, and you have a far more useful tool. Take the status quo, and then imagine an opposite that’s just as bad as the status quo, but for the opposite reasons. That makes you think about just what it is about the status quo that’s problematic, to begin with; once you’ve identified the problems, it challenges you to consider the downside of going to the opposite extremes; and once you’ve identified the spectrum of possibilities, it leads you to explore many points along that spectrum, in search of the range of options that offer the most benefits and the fewest drawbacks. It’s far less simple—or simplistic—than going to the opposite extreme; it also works better in the real world, where hard binary oppositions are a good deal less common than muddily complex issues in which moderation is inevitably a better strategy than extremism.

Finally, the same logic can be applied to the problem I raised earlier—the risks run in contemplating something you don’t want to imitate. If you’re going to have to pay attention to something you don’t want to mirror in your own life, figure out what the equally destructive opposite to that thing would be, and put some attention into that, too. If you’ve chosen your opposite precisely enough, the two will cancel each other out—you can’t imitate something and its exact opposite at the same time—and the positive alternative halfway between the two, the thing you want to imitate and that you should also be contemplating, trumps both the negatives.

Imitating the status quo, for example, is not a good idea; there are plenty of reasons for that, some of which we’ll be discussing down the road a bit, but the dubious value of copying the mores of a society that in practice treats shopping for products as the highest reach of human potential will probably be evident to most of my readers. What defines the modern industrial world, from this perspective, is a mode of life dominated by absurd material extravagance. What’s the opposite of that? A mode of life dominated by bitter material insufficiency—that is to say, the kind of society we may yet end up with, if the delusions of infinite material growth continue to guide our collective policy for too much longer: a society in which early death by starvation, exposure, and treatable disease is the fate of most people, because the resources that might have prevented that outcome were squandered on the senseless wastefulness of previous decades.

Between these two extremes, in turn, quite a range of potentially viable midpoints can be found, and of course that’s part of the point; a binary analysis allows for only two options, a ternary analysis for an infinite number between the far ends of a spectrum. Still, the options that are viable all share certain basic elements in common. First of all, they start from the realization that the material resources that support human life are finite, and can be exhausted if they’re used too greedily or treated too cavalierly. They recognize that too much is as problematic as not enough, that "longages" can be as destructive as shortages. Given the current and continuing trajectory of contemporary industrial civilization, they take it as a given that most resources are going to be in much shorter supply in the years to come, that collective institutions such as governments and markets—which are geared to the fantasy of perpetual growth—are unlikely to take useful steps until it’s too late to do much, and that individual action focused on learning to get by with much less is therefore essential to any viable path to the future.

That is to say, they share certain important things in common with the Green Wizardry we’ve been discussing here over the last year and a half. In the weeks to come, we’ll bring both the discussions involved in this last point—the exploration of Green Wizardry and that of magic—full circle.