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Knowledge and its Counterfeit


Gai Eaton

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1974). © World Wisdom, Inc.

IT would not be particularly surprising if the notion of man’s viceregal dignity were unacceptable to a number of people. What is really astonishing is that it should now be unimaginable to the majority of people in the West—or perhaps one should say to the majority of “educated” people everywhere. That a view of the world and of man’s destiny which could, until so recently, be counted as a normal human characteristic should be dismissed in its entirety as a fairy story would be incredible if it had not actually happened.

No wonder that some of those who hold to the traditional view believe that the devil himself has bewitched our kind, putting to sleep the faculties through which they were formerly aware of realities beyond the field of sense-perception and making use of mirages to lead them on into the waterless desert. But the process of deception can at least be charted and analysed in fairly simple terms, not least in terms of what Mircea Eliade has called the “provincialism” of modern thought.

In the first place, our contemporaries ascribe their own basic assumptions to the people of other times and other cultures and therefore suppose that if they did not deduce what we have deduced from these assumptions they must necessarily have been our inferiors. It is taken for granted that their beliefs were derived as ours are from the observation of physical phenomena and that they were always trying to do what we in fact have done. It is not unusual for children to enjoy a sense of superiority over parents who cannot climb trees as well as they can or who make a mess of a jigsaw puzzle that is no problem to an eight-year-old. A child may wonder why a grown-up who can afford to buy ice-cream or chocolates every day of his life does not do so, just as we are puzzled that the ancients did not turn their minds to “science”. Grown-ups, however, have other things which demand their attention.

In this sense, modern “provincialism” is essentially childish. It assumes that if all we want is ice-cream, then this is all that people ever wanted. They did not know how to produce it quickly, hygienically and in quantity. We do. They would have given the little they possessed to have motor cars and aeroplanes, but they were not clever enough to invent them. We have invented and made them (it was not, after all, very difficult). And they thought the Earth was the centre of the Universe. We know better.

This kind of argument may not be produced by intellectuals, but it is brought out again and again by “ordinary people” and swallowed whole by non-Europeans who, having shaken off Western political domination, submit like lambs to the imperialism of Western ideas and feel ashamed that they themselves did not invent the car and the aeroplane. In this mood of shame and self-humiliation they may even become Marxist Socialists, which makes them true Europeans in everything but the colour of their skin.

The provincialism of modern thought is apparent, secondly, in the rule of fashion, which governs philosophy and ideology as it does the arts. The theory of evolution (as it is popularly understood) and belief in progress make it almost inevitable that last year’s thoughts and theories should be considered as out-of-date as last year’s dress. And—depending, as they do, upon the picture of the world presented by physical science—these theories and thoughts must change with the changing hypotheses by which scientists try to interpret physical phenomena. If even our grandfathers were ignorant of most of the “facts” upon which our present beliefs are based, the thoughts of men far distant in time or unacquainted with modern science are assumed to have been little more than the fumbling notions of creatures “just down from the trees”. There is, then, a provincialism in time which isolates the narrow world of today—or this year—from all that went before.

Thirdly, and perhaps in the most significant sense, we are provincial in that we live and think and have faith only within the strict limits of faculties given to us to deal with our own small corner of creation and ill-adapted (as is our language itself) to anything beyond self-preservation and the getting of food. Our ideas of truth and indeed of all that is are confined to what fits the contours of a mind as limited in its way as are our physical senses; and we are necessarily agnostics, in the exact sense of the term, since it is obvious that the mind as such cannot know—within its own terms of reference—what lies beyond this particular locality and the view visible from here.

The distinction between agnosticism and ignorance is an important one in our age, particularly if one reduces the two terms to their basic meaning : in the one case, “There is nothing for me to know”; in the other, “I do not know”. The one raises a personal incapacity to the dignity of a universal law, the other merely admits incapacity and tries to live with it. The one claims to say something about human nature; the other makes a personal statement. And because it is our nature to universalise private experience, it does not take long for ignorance to transform itself into agnosticism, particularly in an egalitarian age. For the emotional strength of the agnostic attitude lies in the refusal to admit that anyone can be or could ever have been our superior in this, the most important of all human functions—the knowledge of what there is to be known. Religion in our time is generally thought of in terms of faith rather than of knowledge. In egalitarian terms, faith is all right. You can believe in fairies if you want to. But knowledge, the knowledge of realities beyond the mind’s immediate compass, excludes those who do not possess it and seems presumptuous. The idea that a saint among the saints may have known God—not merely believed in Him, as anyone is free to do—suggests that someone has been enjoying an unfair advantage, like a rich man who uses a loophole in the income-tax law that is denied to the rest of us.

When it comes to matters of belief, each age has its particular set of assumptions which appear to it self-evident (and form the basis of its reasoning), and these assumptions are likely to exclude others which seemed equally self-evident at a different time in history. Reasoning always plays a subsidiary role, for reason does not operate in a vacuum—it works on the material presented to it in the form of basic assumptions that are taken for granted.

It is in terms of our characteristic assumptions here and now that most people are prepared to accept certain ideas on “faith” but demand “proof” as soon as a different complex of ideas is brought to their attention. One man says, “Show me God and I’ll believe in him”. But another might say, quite reasonably, “Show me an actual case of the transformation of species and I’ll believe in evolution”. There is, however, an important difference between the two cases. In the first, St. Augustine’s dictum, “Believe in order that you may know” makes sense. In a certain sense, it may apply in the second case as well, for we must believe in the scientist’s basic assumptions before we can accept his theories as a form of knowledge. But here the resemblance ends. We are not being offered knowledge as such. The proposition to which we are required to agree is that given these assumptions and given the absolute validity of human reasoning, assuming also that the simplest explanation of a particular phenomenon is always the right one and that the physical world is sealed off from any interference from other realms, then we would accept the scientist’s conclusions if we had received the same technical training as he had.

The scientific age is necessarily an age of blind belief. No longer can men be told that the assumptions of their time will be confirmed in their own personal experience if only they look deeply enough into this experience; and, compared with the arguments of theology, the arguments of contemporary science are so abstract, so technical that they are no longer open to criticism by the non-specialist and cannot be tested against any kind of experience known to man as a living creature. We must accept them or reject them on principle.

Meanwhile, the scientist himself requires a very special kind of faith. He must assume the absolute validity of his own mental processes and believe that the logic of these processes is a universal law to which everything that is or ever could be conforms. Not altogether unlike the man who interprets the outside world in terms of what is going on in his own entrails, seeing a bright day when he is feeling well and finding the world a dark and sinister place when his system is choked with waste products, he applies to the data provided by observation and by its instruments the rules which govern his own mentality, a mentality constructed for the practical business of living much as the entrails are constructed for the digestion of food. Since inner and outer are, in the last analysis, two sides of the same coin, he will find—if he has applied these rules accurately—that the protean physical world will provide the answers he expects of it (the answers being already implied in the phrasing of his questions) and experiments will confirm the conclusions he has reached without ever, in fact, taking him beyond the subjective realm.

However complex the machines and instruments we have designed to extend the apparent range of our senses, scientific exploration is always in some measure dealing with patterns inherent in the exploring mind and meeting with the mirror images it has projected. Nature mocks and eludes us, while seeming to fall in with the framework dictated by our own logical process, obliging us because our minds are themselves embedded in her structure. We try to think of our-selves, so far as our mentality is concerned, as standing—or floating —above the natural world, competent to survey it objectively, and the intervention of scientific instruments between our own naked senses and what is observed heightens the illusion of objectivity; but what is by its nature embedded in the matrix of the world can never escape and look down as a disembodied agent upon its own matrix. That element in man which does transcend the natural world is in him but not of him, and the objectivity of its awareness is very different from the fictional objectivity exercised by one facet of nature in relation to another.

But while the scientist in his increasingly private and abstract sphere finds a marvellous concordance between his mental experience and the behaviour of a needle on a dial or the traces of radiation on a photo-graphic plate, the ordinary man of our time faces a widening gulf set between scientific “fact” and any kind of immediate experience known to him. It might he said that this gulf first showed itself when the fact that the earth circles the sun was made generally known, displacing the fact—equally valid in its own context—that our normal experience is of a sun which rises and sets, circling our central place.

The facts—or supposed facts—which dominate most peoples’ thinking today and which are presented in the schoolroom as the linchpins of “modern knowledge” are for the most part quite outside the range of our normal experience and quite unverifiable in personal terms. While in no possible sense supernatural, they lie beyond the framework of nature as we know it in our daily lives, and their “proof” is to be found only in experiments carried out under almost unimaginable conditions (at temperatures a fraction above absolute zero, and so on) by means of immensely complex equipment. In terms of experience—and a fact, after all, is normally something against which we expect to be able to stub our toes—this is a very remote and estoteric region. And it is partly because the facts presented by contemporary science are unverifiable in experience and because they have their source in the “extra-terrestial” conditions created in the secrecy of the laboratory that they have such power to bind and to dominate. Their glassy surface offers no purchase to the sceptical probing of the ordinary mind.

A field of knowledge in which the ordinary man can participate only by believing what he is told corresponds well enough to the political field of the monolithic State in which man participates only by doing what he is told; while the conviction that every new fact which is “discovered” adds to the universal store of knowledge and that this quantitative increase in knowledge is an unqualified good finds its echo in the notion that every technological “advance” represents a plus sign in relation to the increase of human wellbeing.

Speaking of the “normal and providential limitation of the data of experience”, Schuon remarks that, while no knowledge is bad in itself and in principle, many forms of knowledge can be harmful in practice “because they do not correspond to man’s hereditary habits and are imposed on him without his being spiritually prepared; the soul finds it hard to accommodate facts that nature has not offered to its experience, unless it is enlightened with metaphysical knowledge or with an impregnable sanctity”. The unenlightened and unsanctified personality subjected to a barrage of facts which contradict its own intimate experience and contribute nothing to its growth and maturing is more likely to be maimed than nourished.

Facts as such lodge only in the mind. In so far as our ideas are changed, our feelings and our conduct will be affected, but the ideas which induce this personality-change remain purely mental in character and cannot normally be represented in other terms. In sharp contrast to this, the metaphysical truths at the root of human belief in other times, since they lie outside the boundaries of the human personality as such, are no more exclusively mental than they are exclusively emotional. They may be expressible in a mental formula—an idea or a statement—but they cannot be enclosed in this formula or confined within its necessary limitations. In traditional societies they were reflected not merely in the theories by which the mind organises its material, but also in myths and symbols, in the structure of the mirrors which society held up to its members and in the sacred or ritual element which entered into the web of everyday life—into a man’s waking and his sleeping, his eating, his love-making, his fighting and his work.

When such truth as is supposed to be known lodges only in the mind, man is divided against himself or else—if he achieves a kind of enforced unity—submits to the domination of the mental over his other faculties. But what a man does, what he brands with his name, is the expression of his whole personality, not simply of some aspects of what he is. Fragmentation of the personality is characteristic of “modern” as against “primitive” thought; and the questions that are raised concerning man’s role in society, the distinction between creative work and labour, or patterns of sexual behaviour only arise because of this fragmentation, this dissociation of part from part.

Since responsibility is necessarily a function of the whole man, those whose actions are dictated by only one part of their nature find it dangerously easy to deny paternity when they are faced with the consequences of what they have done. The scientist whose pursuit of factual knowledge leads (indirectly, as it seems to him) to certain undesirable developments is aware that he never willed these developments, just as the man who rapes a young girl under emotional compulsion knows quite well that he never meant to harm her. The scientist may suggest that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is natural to man, just as the rapist may feel that emotion, if it is powerful enough, contains its own justification; and both can take refuge in the excessive emphasis upon motives and intentions which isolates modern man from the great web of consequences which he actualises. But consequences do follow acts, and they must belong to someone.

The dedicated scientist working long hours in his laboratory—yet happy as a child at play—careless about money and charmingly naive in matters of sex is a popular image, and although real scientists are not always quite like this they can be forgiven for adopting the required pose on occasions. Like so many masks, it expresses a truth. And, when this same scientist is faced with the consequences of his pursuit of knowledge, the truth behind the pose becomes shockingly apparent; he reacts as someone so dedicated to the task in hand that—like the rapist—he could see no further ahead. With indecent haste he searches for scapegoats (wicked politicians or rapacious businessmen) who have bent his innocent discoveries to their own purpose, he having always supposed that none but angels would handle and apply the knowledge he has wrung from his intercourse with the natural world.

It is not as though he had never been warned. And this is perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the scientist’s claim to innocence. The very fact that he can practise his pursuit of knowledge in freedom is, in his view—and according to what we are all taught at school—the result of a hard-fought battle against “persecution”, against “obscurantism”, against “superstition”. But there is another way of looking at the obstructions which were formerly placed in the way of scientific advance. A fence at the edge of a cliff is an obstruction, but it has not been placed where it is without reason; and to suppose that the men who raised these obstructions in the way of science were quite without intelligence or foresight is an impertinence which only reflects our own stupidity. The investigation of the natural world “in depth” and the pursuit of factual knowledge for its own sake were once regarded as dangerous and ultimately destructive activities. It is absurd to be surprised when these activities do turn out to be both dangerous and ultimately destructive.

For Ibn ‘Arabi, the greatest of the medieval Muslim philosophers, such delving into the operations of nature was a form of incest, a prying under the Mother’s skirts. And this is one way of characterising the efforts of one facet of the natural world to know another facet —bearing in mind the Biblical use of the verb “to know”. The penetration of nature by the fact-finding and analytic mind keeps time with the rape of the earth we tread and the exploitation of our fellow creatures. An incestuous conjunction of mind with matter engenders some monstrous offspring.

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Few things are more irritating to those who accept the scientific view in its entirety (while taking pride in their open-mindedness) than the alternating attitudes of Olympian superiority and quiet evasiveness which seem to them characteristic of the opponents of science. And because the opponents of science are necessarily on the defensive, in a world which is overwhelmingly convinced of the truth of the scientific view, they are bound to take refuge sometimes in mystery if not in mystification. A duellist who is constantly challenged to fight with weapons of his opponent’s choosing must keep some tricks up his sleeve.

But perhaps there is no duel to be fought or won. Perhaps these antagonists have only the illusion of meeting and there is only the spectacle—familiar in farce—of two men shadow-boxing at opposite sides of the stage, ludicrously unaware that their blows never make contact. For they are in different places. It is not enough to share a common language, if there are no common assumptions to provide an agreed basis for argument. Without such a basis, argument leads only to a fever of irritation because each participant feels that the other is “missing the point”. As, indeed, he is, since “the point” is the truth as seen from the place at which each has taken his stand and they are too far apart to share the same view of the mountain which is the ultimate theme of their dialogue.

This, however, suggests or could be taken to suggest that the different views are of equal validity. When it comes to a question of perspectives, even if we ignore the possibility of a total view, there is a distinction to be made between the narrow perspective and the broad one, the provincial perspective and a more universal one, The idea that it is possible to “see another man’s point of view” implies to some extent that it is possible to be that other man. Points of view can never entirely coincide, even within an integrated and virtually unanimous society, but they can be sufficiently close under normal circumstances for some kind of dialogue to be possible. The situation in which we now find ourselves is not a normal one so far as the human race is concerned. Heirs of a fairly unified culture, we retain the habit of taking for granted a certain uniformity of viewpoint, but in our age it is possible for men living side-by-side in the same society to pass their lives in totally different worlds.

Because such a situation is by nature painful, those who take their stand upon the religious view, being in a minority and respecting democratic practice, have gone to extraordinary lengths to meet their “scientific” stable-mates rather more than halfway, as though a man who had been looking over a fence were to squat down—for the sake of keeping company with his children—and peer through the hole they have bored in the wood, swearing that this is all that can possibly be seen of the world next door.

If provincialism is taken to mean narrowness of view, then Eliade’s phrase is particularly apt in the context of the process of contraction which has been taking place for a long time and was already well advanced when Descartes made awareness of his own thinking-self the starting-point of human knowledge, but took care to shut the doors and windows before sinking into the cavern of mental self-awareness. To all appearances, the outer world has expanded as the inner one has contracted. The small, vaulted universe, lit by a friendly lamp and haunted by familiar spirits, has opened out into the unimaginable vastness of space with its thin population of burning stars, while a vast spiritual world extending from nadir to Empyrean has contracted to the dimensions of the skull-box; and one might visualise this process (so well expressed in the scientific theory of an “expanding universe”) in terms of a child’s bubble-blowing—an “objective” world which increases in sheer size as man pumps his life-breath into it. But size, unless it has human significance, is meaningless and as nothing in relation to a timeless eternity. A distance of a million light years is further than a man could walk: and having said this there is little more to be said about such distances. They are irrelevant to the business of being a man.

It is in this sense—and in no other—that man is “the measure of all things”. If he is Viceroy, his concern in time is with the province that is given him as his particular destiny. His concern beyond this province is with an eternity that is not subject to contraction or expansion. With the contraction of man’s idea of his own identity, the “outer” world has grown in size, but it has become a desert.

If we acknowledge that on a certain level (a level beyond the causal web of everyday life) the distinction between “inner” and “outer”, though it may still have a certain symbolic significance, is no longer final or even useful, then arguments regarding man’s dependence upon his environment or his environment’s dependence upon him lead no further than does the dispute as to which came first—the chicken or the egg. But we are free to employ figures of speech which suggest the precedence of one over the other without prejudice to the wider view which sees both as aspects of a single identity, just as we may employ the practical terminology of cause-and-effect without in any way denying a Divine Omnipotence for which the chain of action and reaction is only the projection in time of a single and timeless event. It is all a matter of levels and perspectives, of situating apparently opposed ideas and irreconcilable facts where they belong.

To attempt to fit aspects of the truth which belong to different levels and make sense according to different perspectives into one framework at one particular level (that of the laws which govern our mental processes in the context of everyday life) is an impossible task. It is also an unnecessary task, for we ourselves do not exist on one level only. But this is what rationalism, with its two-dimensional scheme of things, tries to do, and this is why the scientific view, isolated in its two-dimensional world, cannot be attacked on its own ground or in terms of the proofs and arguments which it considers valid.

It would be too easy—and yet partially true—to say that rational-ism is false simply because it is an “-ism”. In fact it is false because of its pretensions to universality, its claim to include the whole of reality within its own orbit, and its exclusion of everything that cannot be fitted into its particular and local categories. Reason is a mode of knowledge. Rationalism is its characteristic “Pharonic sin”.

Man is a rational being, but he is also something more than that. Reason is his tool—not his definition. The cancerous tendency of the part to behave as though it were the whole operates here as in so many other fields. Reason functions in terms of strict and irreconcilable alternatives. This is black or white. This creature is either male or female. Either this animal will eat me or I shall eat it. Such is its nature, since it is one of the tools given us to deal with the context in which our mental and sensory experience unfolds. And, since this experience is a form of true knowledge, the instruments through which it is perceived and organised cannot be false—so long as they keep their place. The man who believes he can interpret all that is in terms of reason does not differ greatly from one who thinks he can absorb and digest knowledge through his belly.

Those who cannot accept that they add up to more than the sum of their own instruments or that it does not necessarily follow because this is true that that must be false and who will not accept that the region of possible knowledge extends into categories beyond those of human reason (and into moulds quite unrelated to the contours of the human mind) are voluntary prisoners in their own empirical and conditioned selfhood. Their speculation is a ball bounced against the walls of their cell.

That there should be truths inconceivable in mental terms is intolerable to the greedy mind (acting as Censor), and, in so far as we submit to this censorship and are inwardly convinced that knowledge is the province of the mind and of the mind only, we cannot but dismiss the inconceivable as unknowable and, for all practical purposes, unreal. Illusions are always “conceivable” because illusions, as we understand the term, cannot exist without our help and are rooted in our faculties. But truth does not need us and is in no way dependent upon our powers of conceptualisation. God, in His Essence, is said to be quite inconceivable in terms of the mind’s language; but there is nothing inconceivable about a flying hippopotamus, however improbable we may suppose such a creature to be. The mind comprehends facts and is at ease with fictions. It is not by its nature apt to grasp realities.

But to be incapable of grasping something in the sense of possessing and assimilating it does not necessarily imply complete alienation. If the mind had no contact with reality, then we would all be madder than mad, indeed we would not be here at all—or there or anywhere else. And if reality could not in some measure be represented in mental, emotional and physical terms it would not be reality. What has been lost in a mind-fixated age is the awareness that the mental representation is by its nature limited and incomplete, as is the emotional image or the physical symbol. Truth is expressed in these different languages. It is not exhausted by anything that they can say about it. And the antinomies which exist at one level are reconciled at another.

There is a necessary tension in the religious and intellectual sphere between acceptance and rejection of the partial images through which mind, emotion and senses maintain their hold on reality. Most of us cannot do without our mental concepts, our anthropomorphic image of God and our physical symbols, and the hidden truth responds to our need because it is by its nature partially conceivable, a fit object for love, and present in the sights, sounds, odours, flavours and tactile qualities of the physical world. To reject such partial knowledge as is offered by our natural faculties because it is no more than partial leads nowhere. It is the folly of those who, when they are made aware that reason has its limitations, turn to a kind of doctrinaire “irrationalism”. But to suppose that truth in its wholeness can be encompassed by these faculties is a form of idolatry.

The inveterate human tendency to idolatry (worship of the reflection rather than of that which is reflected) is, in the Islamic view, the most dangerous and the most universal of sins. The Islamic Revelation broke in upon a culture which had petrified into gross forms of idolatry at a time when the breaking of images and the release of the spirit of truth from its stony prison were most necessary. But outside of historic circumstances which determine the accents and emphasis of a particular religion, this Revelation had the providential function of redressing the balance between those who try to bind the truth in mental formulae, emotional fixations and physical images, and those who insist upon its absolute transcendence over all that we are capable of thinking or feeling or doing.

Without supernatural wisdom—and without the humility which recognises the subordination of reason to that wisdom—it is impossible for the human mind as such to keep the balance between transcendence and immanence, reconciling the idea of God as totally “other” (in Quranic terms, “having no likeness whatsoever”) and the idea of God as intimately present in everything that has existence (in Quranic terms, “closer to man than his jugular vein”). But it remains a useful exercise for the mind to set such contrary ideas side-by-side in its narrow cabin (as the Zen Buddhists do by means of their paradoxical “koans”) until it begins to sense, beyond its own reach, the presence of a point at which the contraries meet.

When two ideas, each parcelled and capsulated in accordance with our mental needs, appear at once irreconcilable—as do the notions of “predestination” and “free will”—and yet necessary if the world makes any kind of sense, then we can only reach out towards that “incomprehensible” point. But, if that point is beyond the reach of our bread-and-butter faculties and can never be captured by a mind which insists upon absolute rights of possession, this does not mean that it has no contact with the world we inhabit, no relation to the human person in his totality. On the contrary, the belief—normal to mankind—that there is a meaning inherent in everything that exists and in everything that happens must necessarily imply the omnipresence of that point, that truth, that centre.

Such argument as this is soon classified so far as those who hunger after classification are concerned. This is “mysticism”—or as near to it as makes no difference. As such it can be dismissed, not with the hostility and resentment which so often accompanies the dismissal of “organised religion”, but with a gesture of respect, even a muted sound of trumpets, as something too remote from everyday life to represent a threat—a gentle and poetic eccentricity. Yet there have been some good swordsmen among the “mystics” who, like David, have slain their ten-thousands.

In so far as the term has any precise meaning, “mystics” have no doubt existed and followed their inward path in all periods, triumphing over the obstacles placed in their path by social chaos or social regimentation, sharing the peculiar vocation of the heroes and martyrs who stride over the turbulence or the petrifiction of their world with all the splendour of elephants rampaging through the bush. But the place they are going is the place we are going. And most of us are not “mystics”, heroes or potential martyrs. We are not even elephants.

This is where the attempt to isolate “mystical experience” from the normal stream of life in the sense in which, for example, musical experience may be isolated as something irrelevant to the lives of those who cannot share it, breaks down. The “mystic” is different from the rest only as the flyer is different from the walker, though both must reach the city walls before nightfall. What he is talking about is as much their business as his. But while he may find his way unaided, the common man, the quite unelephantine man, needs help and has a right to expect this help from the society in which he lives; and human societies, if they are to make any claim upon our loyalty beyond the claim of mutual convenience, exist to beat a path through the bush for those who cannot fly or even trample. To provide paths to the “mystic’s” goal which are walkable by everyman is the justification of traditional human societies, and it was as “vehicles” fit to carry multitudes across the existential river that these societies demanded and received the loyalty of their members. This was their title to legitimacy.

A society which bases its solidarity upon men’s need to huddle together in mutual protection against the forces of the jungle has its uses, but it can scarcely claim a loyalty beyond the consideration of self-interest—or beyond what it can impose through fear of the law and of the police. This is the “social contract” upon which modern societies are based, including the dictatorships (for the sheep will sometimes look to the wolf for protection). And, since few are likely to be “mystics” and only a minority can draw adequate spiritual support from private religion (that is to say, a religion which is con-fined to the personal realm and does not permeate the whole of a society, a community or a tribe), the majority of those who live in a profane society remain imprisoned in a very cold and narrow place.

It is because such a caged life as this can only be a life starved of realities for which man has an inherent hunger that the rebel and the misfit assume a role of peculiar importance in modern society and exercise such a fascination over contemporary artists and novelists, while satyr and nymphomaniac, drunkard and drug-addict become significant figures—however tormented and unsatisfied—in the drama of release from a prison too humdrum to be tolerated, bearing witness on the one hand to the fact that sexuality provides a compelling “real” experience, whatever its context, and, on the other, to the not unreason-able view that an “illusion” of escape is preferable to no escape at all. Those among the good prisoners who are too sophisticated to thunder moral denunciations now dismiss sexual obsession as “boring” and addiction as a sickness. But when it comes to offering an alternative they can only suggest that the would-be escaper should try to become a “trusty”.

What the traditional, God-centred societies offered their members was a life saturated with the awareness of realities beyond the reach of mind, feeling or sense in terms of their normal functioning—a life of “ignorance and superstition”, as the “trusties” say—and a whole complex of bridges leading to hillock or mountain, as the case might be, but certainly leading upwards and outwards from the flatlands. Objects of sense were alive with symbolism, emotion was universalised in ritual and mental concepts were not self-sufficient propositions (enclosing and limiting reality), but keys to supernatural knowledge.

In earlier times, says Thibon, “men did not know all the contours of the human and cosmic lock, but they possessed the key . . . Modern thought as a whole no longer occupies itself at all with the nature or existence of this key. The only questions posed before a closed door is to examine it most painstakingly, not to open it”.[1] Or else we ignore the door altogether (taking it for a section of an impenetrable wall) and set the key under a microscope, treating the instrument that lies in our hands as though it were an end in itself.

This is not far from being a definition of idolatry—to worship a key instead of setting it to the lock. And here we come to the great divide which separates rationalism and all its offshoots from the traditional view of ideas, feelings and the phenomena of the physical world as symbols and therefore as signs which, if they are properly used, point towards the perfection which, in their flickering fashion, they signify. “We shall show them Our signs on the horizon and within themselves, until it is clear to them that this is the Truth”.[2]

But to live with things that are other than they seem, among signs that point away from themselves, amidst bridges that lead elsewhere and ladders of which only the lower rungs are visible is hard for those who hunger after factual certainties. It is easier to settle down where we are and regard the sign as a work of art, the bridge as a piece of masonry and the ladder as a wooden frame, accepting appearances for what they are worth and trying to forget that death will—so far as we are concerned—dissolve all such works into nothingness.

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 “Primordial man sees the ‘more’ in the ‘less’,” says Schuon. “The infrahuman world in fact reflects the heavens and transmits in an existential language a divine message that is at once multiple and unique”.[3] Christianity, he points out, could not but react against the real “paganism” in the environment within which it crystallised as a world religion, but in so doing it also destroyed values which did not in the least merit the reproach of “paganism” : modern technology “is but an end product, no doubt very indirect, of a perspective which, after having banished the gods and genies from nature and having rendered it ‘profane’, by this very fact finally made possible its ‘profanation’ in the most brutal sense of this word”.

Paganism in the proper sense of the term is an idolatry applied to the natural world, but it is also, in most cases, the debris of a religion in the final stage of decay, the stage at which its followers, like dogs, sniff at the pointed finger rather than going where the finger points. Paganism is idolatry, animism, fetishism and so on; and these aberrations all bear witness to the fact that something which was once adored as a symbol of the reality which lay behind its fragile presence has come to be worshipped for its own sake. But every religion is likely eventually to degenerate into paganism if the world lasts long enough. It follows that the distinction between images which are adored as symbols and images which are worshipped as “gods” is hard to make; in any religious context—and particularly in that of Hinduism, to take one example—there will be those who understand that the image points away from itself and those who mistake the image for an end in itself.

A new Divine Revelation, breaking in upon the rusty structure of the particular ‘milieu’ to which it is directed, is likely to sweep such images aside. It offers a real and effective alternative—a highroad in place of the little bridges and ladders that people had been using (or misusing) for ages past. But when the highroad itself has begun to suffer the erosion of time and when (this being the nature of time’s action) it has narrowed and contracted, then the loss is felt. Once the highroad has gone out of sight, so far as the majority of people are concerned, no bridge is to be despised, no ladder scorned as primitive, ‘naive’ or clumsy. It is, in any case, one thing for the lightning stroke to destroy such supports and quite another for busy, opinionated little men to set themselves up as wreckers.

Islam and Christianity were both, at their inception, revolutionary religions and therefore destructive—at least in a certain sense. Since it is that section of the world which was formerly Christian that has imposed its own pattern almost universally, ex-Christians are the wreckers with whom we must be chiefly concerned. And all Westerners who are not Christians are ex-Christians, whether they like it or not: a heritage cannot easily be shaken off, and the fiercest opponents of Christianity are those who reject God for not Himself being a Christian (as they understand the term). The destructiveness which was once no more than a side-effect of a great act of renewal turns sour and vicious in those for whom the blazing certainty of God’s love and of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice have no meaning. The rose, in decay, stinks.

In a certain sense the world is nothing but a tissue of bridges, and in theory it is open to any man to recognise sticks and stones for what they really are and so to find himself in a Paradise that was never finally lost. For him, no doubt, the universe—so opaque, so darkened in this winter season—is still transparent as it is said to have been when it issued from the hand of God, and prison bars are no more than candy-sticks that snap in a child’s grip; perhaps there will always be such freaks, born out of their time, since time is not absolute and must sometimes be mocked. But this is not for us. The things we handle are dark and heavy, the bars are thick, and age wears us out. We need crutches and cannot afford to be too proud to accept them from the hands of men no better than ourselves. With them, we may hope to hobble over such rickety bridges as remain undestroyed.

What does a cripple feel, with fire or flood behind him and a jostling crowd making for the only exit, if someone wantonly knocks his crutch away and then destroys the bridge that led to safety? Rage, surely. And if men knew what they have lost through the well-intentioned activities of the crutch-snatchers and bridge-destroyers their rage would make the anger of warring armies and revolutionary mobs seem kittenish.

The principal function of Western thought has been, over a long period, the destruction of “superstition”, a term which—though it may sometimes be applied only to little habits and rituals which have survived in isolation from the doctrines in terms of which they once made sense—soon expands to include every form of belief in the supernatural or in any reality beyond the reach of our senses. Bridges, ladders and also the highroads provided by the great religions have at least one thing in common : they are invisible to those in whom this belief has been destroyed. It is difficult to measure wickedness and define its degrees, but those who have set themselves to persuade their fellow men that the world is nothing but a meaningless agglomeration of material particles (or a blind interaction of minute quanta of energy) totally separate from man’s inner being have done a thing beside which no massacre of the innocents can stand comparison. Like the former Commandant of Auschwitz, these destroyers of bridges have, for the most part, been well-behaved, keeping their fingers off their neighbours’ goods and their neighbours’ wives: and this, as much as anything, makes current notions of goodness and morality seem infantile. If those who do the most harm go unpunished, how can we bring ourselves to condemn the thief and the murderer?

But if wickedness can be defined—as it may be—in terms of a half-witted pursuit of good, a pursuit without regard for time, place or circumstance, then it must be said that much of this wrecking has been done in the name of the most splendid of ideals, the ideal of perfection. And the idealist, the perfectionist, cannot tolerate what is grimy or flawed or broken. He must change it at once or, if it cannot be changed, he must destroy it. But our world is by definition and by necessity a grimy, flawed and broken place, subject to decay and riddled with death. If it were otherwise it would not be the world or—to put the matter another way—this universe of time and space would be indistinguishable from the timeless perfection of Paradise and would therefore lose its separate existence. It can be rendered transparent, so that the light of what is perfect is discerned behind its shapes and patterns, and it can be loved so that its very deformities become the objects of a redeeming passion, but it cannot be changed or mended at its own level.

At the root of modern idealism, with its refusal to accept imperfection as something inherent in the human condition, there lies a basic and perhaps satanic puritanism which, carried to its logical conclusion, would set fire to this world of ours and destroy it utterly.

“You can work miracles”, said one of his companions to the Muslim saint, Hallaj; “Can you bring me an apple from heaven?” The saint raised his hand and, within the instant, held in it an apple which he offered to his companion. Biting into the fruit, the man observed with horror that there was a worm in it. “That”, said Hallaj, “is because, in passing from the eternal realm into the world of time it has taken on something of the latter’s corruptibility”.

This story has a particular bearing upon contemporary attitudes to such traditional and religious bridges as still remain relatively intact in the modern world. When they are not being undermined by the scientific view, they are being condemned on account of the corruption which has infiltrated their structure; or, indeed, undermining may go hand-in-hand with condemnation so that they suffer the combined assault of rationalist and moralist. The man who is ready enough to admit his own imperfections and to acknowledge that evil cannot be eradicated from the conditions of human life may still seek for a kind of primordial purity in religion and primordial virtue in its priests or exponents, demanding that apples from heaven should forever retain the incorruptibility of their origin. As a fallen being himself, he might be expected to know better.

Whatever is fleshed must in some measure take on the limitations of its medium and become subject to the laws which govern the context of its incarnation. A Divine Revelation, fleshed in concepts, in an organisation, in rituals and in rules of conduct, cannot be immune to the process of limitation and decay, even though the grace and power which lie at the kernel of its manifestation remain by their nature untainted as does the ultimate and innermost essence of man himself. And because we are what we are and the world is what it is, grace and power can be tapped only by those who have enough love and humility in them to embrace the outer shell, twisted as it has been by so many human hands and crusted with the grime of centuries, until, like the fairy tale Princess who, by a kiss, changes a misshapen monster into a fair young Prince, they find what was always there, in the kernel, at the centre, only waiting to be re-awakened. And from this point of view the shortcomings of any religion as it appears to the outsider and the scandal created by some of its representatives—fornicating priests, corrupt Imams, thieving Sadhus—might be compared to the trials and tests which the heroes of mythology had to surmount before they reached the goal of all desire.

From another point of view it might be said that if religious institutions (and the ritual and mythological complexes of “primitive” peoples) did not reek of humanity, they would perhaps seem too alien, too abstract and, indeed, too pure for the likes of us. It is because they are so well integrated into our natural and organic existence and because they have a homely, familiar smell that they are of use as bridges over which ordinary people may pass from this shore to the other, unfamiliar one. And this is what the puritan, intoxicated with his own idealism, cannot admit : he finds it intolerable that plaster saints and household gods and desert tombs should serve as bridges and that a God who is said to be almighty and transcendent should so demean Himself as to permit his grace and power to operate through such trivial instruments, forgetting that this same God is also said to be omnipresent, that nothing therefore is trivial and that men are free to find Him where they can.

The Divine Presence within “things”—in sticks and stones and bits and pieces—implies their wholeness, but men who are themselves fragmented between mind, emotion and sense cannot hope to recognise this wholeness (except as an “idea”). And in the idealist’s disgust and alienation, his refusal to stoop and make use of small, imperfect things lies one of the primary betrayals of man’s viceregality. For the Viceroy is a builder of bridges, and these men are concerned only to destroy. Obsessed by ideas of neatness and symmetry, they take their scissors and snip away at the world picture like a child who, when he tries to make his cut-out figure perfectly symmetrical, cuts first on one side, then on the other and—still unable to get it right—goes on until nothing is left. They seek a false perfection and an impossible symmetry through a process of reduction. All that does not “fit” must be eliminated. But, in the long run, nothing fits their categories. Everything must go.

“The explanation of the world by a series of reductions has an aim in view: to rid the world of extra-mundane values. It is a systematic banalisation of the world undertaken for the purpose of conquering and mastering it. But the conquest of the world is not—in any case was not till half a century ago—the purpose of all human societies. It is an idiosyncrasy of Western man”.[4]

Against this is to be set the vast, untidy bulk of all that man can be and know and do, sprawling across a creation open to the four quarters. The frontiers of what is knowable then extend to the furthest limits of creation and beyond, but the frontiers of what can be comprehended, defined and explained in rational terms and within the contours of the mental faculty are narrowed. The safety of little, day-to-day certainties and the comfort of seeing a needle on a dial move as it was expected to move must be sacrificed before we can escape the closed circle of our own limited existence and enjoy what we are free to enjoy.

But if what is ultimately knowable cannot be cut down to size and explained in the common language of our kind, it can in some measure be lived and acted out—in stories, in symbols and in rites—so that things fall into place, the local is related to the universal and the scattered fragments of our existence are re-assembled into a whole that makes sense.


[1] Echelle de Jacob : Gustav Thibon, p. 177.

[2] Quran, 41.53.

[3] Images de l'Esprit : Frithjof Schuon (Flammarion) pp. 15-16.

[4] The Two and the One : Mircea Eliade (Harwell Press). pp. 156-157.


Original editorial inclusion that followed the essay in Studies:
In addition to eliminating the risks (of too much mental effort and of ‘putting their foot in it’) nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly.
Stanislav Andreski
Social Sciences as Sorcery.