Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Middle Way, Part 6 (Death vs. Growth vs. Cancer)

Extremes do not create happiness. How much is enough? How little is too little? Perhaps only each individual can answer that. But too much growth, to the point of it taking over every element of your life (or the world), is cancer, and none is death. You are not a better person just because you are very rich, or very poor. And likely, you are not happy in either extreme. As Marinoff points out, "Materialists who pursue pleasure and profit above all else remain unhappy. Religious fanatics who pursue denial of modernism above all else remain unhappy. American hedonism overproduces and overconsumes; religious fanaticism underproduces and underconsumes. Each accuses the other of evil. Each sees the other's extremism, yet each is blind to its own" (78). Shall we starve todeath? Shall we allow ourselves to be comsumed by a single thing? Shall we allow the world to be so consumed -- or starved? We forget that cancer causes death.

Perhaps a year ago I wrote the following essay. This seems a good place to share it.

On Health and the Holy

In English the words holy, whole, hale, and health are etymologically connected – Old English halig, hal, and hælth, respectively, which are all related to hal. Thus are they conceptually connected. To see the world as holy is to see the world as whole – it is to have the world “appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt” (William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”). The word holistic comes from the Greek holos, whole. Thus the holy is holistic – God is holy because He encompasses all. Perhaps one could even say that we can recognize the divine only when we come to see the world as a whole, when we see the universe as universal. When we can come

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour. (William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”)

Health and hale is the same. To have health is to have wholeness. To be hale is to be healthy – whole and complete. To make healthy is to make whole again. One is healed through medication. But ideally, one would rather maintain one’s health than have to withstand the ravages of medication (pharmaceutical comes from the Greek pharmakon, which means both poison and medicine – as it does today), though medication is necessary to stave off disease. This is the purpose of Plato’s Pharmakon, to stave off disease. For disease is the opposite of health.

The Modern Era, which we are still in, though we may be at the end of it, began when Descartes split man in two – body and soul. It was a necessary division for the development of modern science (which Descartes all but admits to – the division is so the Church will tend to the soul, while the body is left alone, to be tended to by scientists such as Descartes), but it was certainly an unholy division (as all divisions are, by definition). Kant deepened this division. Hegel tried to mend it through philosophical synthesis. Marx tried to mend it by recommending the overthrow of half of the world – the world would then be wholly Proletarian. Nietzsche responded to Hegel by dividing the world up even more – for him, humans are not divided into body and soul, but are instead a series of masks. With postmodernism, the division is complete: men and women, multiculturalism, radical Cartesian individualism divide us up more and more. Any universality is denied. A necessary development – and not without its truth (I am aware of the irony of using the word truth, which comes from the Old English treowth, related to the word troth, from which we get the word betrothed, to speak of an idea that is more interested in divorce than betrothal). But it is precisely as unholy as one can get.

The deep divisions fostered by postmodernism came about because of a view that grand narratives, attempts to universalize, and seeing the world as holistic created the problems of the 20th Century. The Marxist grand narrative gave us the gulag of the Soviet Union, the massacres of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and any number of other slaughters done by governments who had embraced Marxist philosophy. We looked back on history after the Holocaust, saw the grand narrative of Christianity had in the past itself promoted the killing of Jews – particularly in the Inquisition – and concluded that it too was dangerous. One could also mention The Terror of the French Revolution. What did Marxism, Medieval Christianity, and the French Revolution have in common? One thing was that they were all grand narratives. Thus, the logic goes, it must be grand narratives which are bad. And what do grand narratives do? They see the world as a whole, which must be encompassed by their ideology. To make the world a whole, it must be placed under their one ideology. Thus, holistic world views were seen as bad – thus were they, and holiness, rejected. The path to Heaven – whether that heaven was celestial or earthly – seemed to lead us straight into Hell. Perhaps in part the rejection of holding a holistic view came about because it is related to the holy, and the holy has been rejected. To the extent that wisdom is the ability to see the unity of the world – meaning wisdom is the ability to see the world as holy – wisdom was also rejected as impossible, perhaps even undesirable.

The error in this way of thinking derives from the error made in seeing Communism, Christianity, or the ideals of the French Revolution as interested in seeing the world as holistic. None of them saw the world as holistic, as holy – they instead wanted to make the world whole, under their particular umbrellas. They too fostered divisions – there were enemies who had to be either converted or killed in order that the world could be made holy. “For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life; and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy” (Blake “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”). Now Blake here uses the word “appear.” None of them saw the world as holy. It had to be made so – through conflagration, if necessary. Postmodern thought, by dividing the world even more, does not help us to see the world as holy – quite the contrary. However, by insisting on equality among the various parts – among individuals, among cultures, among religions, among any number of groups of individuals – postmodern thought may ironically make it now possible to see the world as being, rather than needing to become, holy.

It may seem ironic to suggest that only by reaching the most severe of divisions – seeing the world as eminently unholy – that we can finally come to see that the world is in fact holy, but I am not being ironic. To see the world as holy is not to see everything in the world as equal in an egalitarian sense. There are hierarchies. To see the world as holy is to understand how everything fits into the world as a whole. It is to see the world as an immense organism, and to care for its health. An organism is made up of systems, organs, tissues, cells, organelles, and various biochemicals. For one group to want to envelop the entire world in one way of thinking, believing, viewing the world, would be the same as one cell wanting to envelop the entire organism in that one type of cell. We have a word for cells that want to do that: cancer. The postmodernists have mistaken viewing the actions of cancerous cells for seeing the whole organism. Cancer must be fought, not mistaken for the animal it is in. That is the only way one can have a healthy organism – and it is the only way to have a holy world. Like a healthy organism, a holy world is complex. Like a healthy organism, a holy world has smoothly working parts in communication with each other through clear rules that proscribe what each part needs to do for the whole to work well. Like a healthy organism, this cannot come from any centralized authority – there is no one control cell in the body, and the brain must have the lungs just as much as the lungs must have the brain. A holy world is like a healthy organism.

In Negative Theology, one comes to know what God is by figuring out what God is not. Aristotle says that if you are not sure if something is good, try to figure out what is bad, and you can then deduce that what is good is its opposite.
The following are unhealthy:

1. Overeating, including eating a high percentage of foods with low nutritional value, while remaining inactive (not exercising)
2. Either stagnation or change without continuity – both create instability
3. Stress and anxiety – which comes about from not realizing that there are parts of the world that one cannot control, and can lead to anger at those very things
4. Hatred – aside from raising the blood pressure, it can cause one to act in ways that would be unhealthy for the object of our hatred
5. Cancer – already discussed
6. Excess – including the excess of moderation
7. Shackles – prevents sufficient movement, equating to lack of exercise
8. Pollution – it can lead to any number of diseases
9. An overly-clean environment – it can prevent our immune systems from developing properly, making us more susceptible to diseases, especially autoimmune diseases
10. Suicide – inherently and obviously unhealthy
11. Isolation – loneliness can lead to depression, which depresses the immune system
12. Ignorance – either of the world or of oneself, as one cannot maintain one’s health if one is ignorant of what can harm it or improve it

This leads one to posit the following are healthy:

1. Exercise, with a diet proper to the amount of exercise and of high nutritional value
2. Change with continuity
3. Realizing that there are parts of the world that one cannot control, thus reducing stress and anxiety
4. Love
5. Keeping the body in hierarchical harmony
6. Moderation in everything, including moderation – remembering that moderation is an extreme in the same way that life is an extreme state of organic chemistry
7. Freedom – remembering that freedom does not equate to a lack of rules, but is rather what is achieved through playing by the best rules
8. Cleanliness (which, as the saying goes, is next to Godliness, meaning it is holy)
9. A non-sanitized world – a world without dirt is a world that makes unhealthy organisms
10. Love of one’s own life
11. Friends
12. Knowledge – including self-knowledge

One can make a similar list of what makes for a healthy mind:
1. Taking in healthy information – good art, music, literature, philosophy, the sciences, etc. – with sufficient exercise of the mind through thought, discussion, and writing
2. Change with continuity
3. Realizing that there are parts of the world that one cannot control, thus reducing stress and anxiety, which can negatively affect the mind as well as the body
4. Love
5. Having a variety of inputs – obsession with one thing alone is a kind of mental cancer
6. Moderation in everything, including moderation – moderation of reading, of rigorous thought, sexual thoughts, work, play, physical activity, etc.
7. Freedom of thought – we must not think in shackles, but with flexible rules
8. Cleanliness of thought – this does not necessarily mean what it has traditionally meant in the West, though it can certainly contain some elements; thinking about sex is in and of itself not unclean
9. Realization that we do not and cannot live in a sanitized world, as that stops thought and creativity
10. Love of thinking
11. Friends – as Aristotle says in Rhetoric, “a wide circle of friends, a virtuous circle of friends,” and, I would add, a mentally stimulating circle of friends
12. Knowledge – including self knowledge – with the goal of wisdom

A holy world is one that parallels the healthy body and the healthy mind, and will have the above qualities, including moderation in everything, including moderation (i.e., it will be a just world), freedom (this is freedom from, not freedom to), love, friendship, and beauty. A holy world is a beautiful world, both having variety in unity, unity in variety, complexity, and fluid hierarchy that is self-similar regardless of scale. All of the parts, living in love and friendship (which does not exclude healthy competition, such as we find in sports and in free trade), living in a complex dynamic with each other, living as individuals in various communities, many of which overlap and are nested within other communities, must be self-similar to have a holy world.

In Greek, to kalon means the beautiful, but it can also mean the honorable or the noble – and kala can mean either things that are beautiful or things that are morally good. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that “Now kalon describes whatever, through being chosen for itself, is praiseworthy or whatever, through being good [agathon], is pleasant because it is good [agathon]. If this, then, is the kalon, then virtue is necessarily kalon; for it is praiseworthy because of being good [agathon]” (79). Elaine Scarry points out that in English too, there is a connection between beauty and the good (the just), when she points out that to say that something is fair is to say that it is either beautiful or that it is just. In Greek and in English, the beautiful and the good are connected. If a holy world is a beautiful world, it is a good and just world as well. As Heraclitus said, “For god all things are fair and just, but men have taken some things as unjust, others as just” (LXVIII). The key here is that we see the world itself as just – not the actions of each and every individual. The world is itself justified and cannot itself be unjust. This is consistent with the teachings of any religion that sees the world as having been created by God or the gods – how could a fair and just god create a world that was itself unjust? And if theistic religions are rejected, how can the world itself possibly be unjust? To say it is unjust is to give it anthropomorphic qualities. It is people who have taken some things as being just, others as unjust – but the world itself is self-justified. Those who do not see the world as just are those who do not see the world as holy – often they are the same people who think the only way the world can be justified is if the world is made holy through the transformation of it into a perfect mirror of themselves. But we have seen that a world made up of only one world view is a cancerous world – and the world, as a cancerous organism, will die. An organism cannot consist of one type of cell – that is the unhealthiest of organisms. And a world having only one world view is the unhealthiest of worlds. In the same way that a healthy body consists of a variety of cells that are variations of the same theme coded by identical DNA, a healthy world consists of a variety of peoples that are variations of the same themes coded for by our being human and sharing the same cultural universals.

Beauty is also related to health – as we can see in the beauty we find in nature. Healthy plants produce the most beautiful flowers. Healthy peacocks produce the largest, most symmetrical, most colorful feathers. Healthy gobies and other territorial reef fish have the brightest colors. All of this natural beauty is the advertisement of health to the opposite sex. The healthiest human bodies (neither overweight nor super model thin) are the most beautiful. Thus is there also a relationship between health, beauty, and sex. If beauty can thus be equated to health, we can see that beauty is again equated to the holy. And we can see too that sex in-and-of-itself is and cannot be unholy, as it is connected (but not equivalent) to beauty.

A holy world is a whole world. It is a healthy world. It is a good and just world. It is a complex world. It is a world of individuals in community. It is a beautiful world. But is it a possible world? I have already given the answer: the world is itself already holy. We just have to learn to see it as holy. That is how we will heal the world. And, as we do, we will become less and less likely to want or try to eliminate those who disagree with us – until we are all in agreement on this one issue, as all the cells in an organism are in agreement on the one issue that they must work together for the health of the whole, even as each performs its own function. Thus, the world will become more and more holy in our eyes. In works of tragedy, nomos (convention, human law, naming; from which we get the words nomad and nomenclature, and which is the changing and changeable aspect of the world) comes into conflict with physis (or nature; from which we get the word physics). That is the position we are now in. When we get nomos to map onto physis (Heraclitus calls this conjunction logos – which can be translated as saying, speech, discourse, word, account, explanation, reason, principle, collection, enumeration, ratio, proportion), we will see the world as it truly is: holy.

On the Holy

Where lies the holy in the modern world?
It lies in Blake’s world in a grain of sand –
It lies, and lies like the truth, in patterns
Like self-organized rings of rocks barren
Arctic fields create. It lies in the branch
Of every tree and species, leafing out
From the known into the unknown. It lies
In every song, painting and rhythmic verse.
We have looked at every leaf and petal,
At the bark and at the wood, every cell
And strand of DNA is now known –
And we have forgotten that all of this
Was once a tree that gave us shade and filled
The air with delicate sweetness and held
The grains of sand against its roots to hold
The ground in place, even as that ground moves
And changes in tiny ways we refuse
To see. In this we can see the holy.
This is where it lies, now and forever,
On the edge of order and wild chaos,
Where the infinite holds in the finite,
Where we, ourselves holy, have always lived.


Aristotle. On Rhetoric Trans. George Kennedy. Oxford University Press 1991

Blake, William. The Selected Poems of William Blake The Wordsworth Poetry Library. 1994

Heraclitus. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus Trans. Charles Kahn. Cambridge Univ. Press 1997

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 1999
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