Miscellany: On the Cosmic Mountain, Human Nature, the Threefold Soul, Genomic Identitarianism, the Logic of Mask Mandates,


On the Earth as a Cosmic Mountain:

The Earth itself embodies the Cosmic Mountain archetype in the same way as every individual mountain on its surface. In respect to the planet as a whole, the further toward the poles one travels, the more one will notice a rarefaction of plant life. The Arctic Circle is a sort of “tree-line” (i.e. that’s what we call the point on a mountainside above which a tree cannot grow; I’m in Alaska) of the Earth. North of the Arctic Circle, only tundra, shrubs, lichens, and tiny wildflowers can exist and the landscape bears a definitively “alpine” quality. This vision reveals the truth of the Hyperborean legends. The mountain is the archetypal symbol of order in space while the tree is the archetypal symbol of order in respect to time. 

On human nature:

It seems clear that everyone is born with the capacity in potentia to feel and think in a uniquely human way. At the same time, it seems just as clear that the realization of these capacities is only accomplished through development and through the proper nurture. This involves parental care and exposure to human language, culture, intelligence and so on. It is clear that a child raised by wolves, pace Ovid, Plutarch, and Livy, would not really be human because such a one would be unable to successfully realize the potentialities latent in the human being by nature (perhaps this accounts for some of the more rawer elements of the Roman psyche). By the same token, however, neither would a disembodied spirit or “folk-soul” be human. This makes me think that human nature is something that is fostered only through the combined influence of genetic and social inheritance. We might even think of these as the Maternal and Paternal principles, archetypally. Put another way, like a flower that must be provided with both earthly elements and sunlight, so human nature can only emerge when the human organism is immersed in human culture. 

On Aquinas and natural law:

It is important to distinguish “nature” in the Classical and Medieval sense from its typical Modern usage. We retain a vestige of the traditional meaning and hence what the likes of Aquinas would have meant by the term when we use nature in the sense of “essence.” For instance, if I pose a question like “what is the nature of ethics?” I am not inquiring after flora and fauna and geology and wilderness. Instead, I am asking about the crux of the term’s meaning. The key to enter into the world-view of the medieval philosophers is to conceive of everything that exists as an image or icon of essences that were spoken into existence by the Logos of God. In principio, everything bears a direct relation to the ultimate good, both in its origin and its end. The former was sometimes referred to as “procession” from God and the latter as “reversion” toward God. These were symbolized by the Greek letters Α (alpha) and Ω (omega), respectively. Ethics, in its fundamental sense, consists in harmonizing our existential lives with our essential ones as human beings wrought in imago Dei which is, “in the image of God.” 

Aquinas is known, among other things. for his attempts at a “grand synthesis” of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian doctrine. Many people think of “the law of the jungle” when they hear “natural law,” but that’s not really right. The idea of natural law follows from the idea that there is a human essence that differentiates human beings from other beings, like bonobos or acorns. From the idea of a human essence, which is another way of saying “human nature” in this context, it further follows that there are certain goods that are unique to humans while other goods are unique to other beings. The religious element in Aquinas’ vision is not so different from the philosophical one. In fact, he explicitly states that natural law can be discerned through reason alone, as can the existence of a god. He contrasts this to doctrines like “The Incarnation” and “The Trinity,” which cannot be discovered by reason but which must be disclosed through revelation. Returning to the vision of natural law, just as it is a good for the acorn to become an oak, so it is good for a human to embody the virtues. Note that just because it is good for an acorn to become an oak does not mean that it is good for a human being to become an oak. But when they each pursue their own teloi (i.e. plural of telos) they each participate in the order and economy of Creation. Furthermore, just as red is red and blue is blue, and red is not blue, and yet they are both colours, so the human goods and the arboreal goods, and all of the other goods, despite being different, nevertheless are all ultimately ordered under and oriented towards the Good, which is God. It will probably be clear that there is no substantial departure in Aquinas’ vision from the essential teachings of Plato. 

On the knowledge of the prication of knowledge:

The Socratic axiom states that “knowledge of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.” To wit, our awareness of out ignorance grows with our knowledge in the same way that the circumference of a circle—its boundary with the unknown—waxes in direct proportion to its diameter. This paradoxical relation between knowledge and its privation is obvious, however, because mortals’ lack of omniscience is a fact and failure to recognize this can only be called a lack of wisdom.

On the threefold soul:

Freud’s tripartite theory of the soul is largely just a scientific (or pseudo-scientific, if we follow Popper) reworking of the Classical conception of the soul that is present already in Plato’s dialogues. In the Republic, for instance, Plato lends imaginal elaboration to his theory of the soul according to the following scheme:

(1) the rational element or λογιστικόν (logistykon), symbolized by the form of a human

(2) the emotive element or θυμοειδές (thymoeides), symbolized by the form of a lion

(3) and the desiring element or ἐπιθυμητικόν (epithymetikon), symbolized by a many-headed monster or hydra

The purpose of Plato’s metaphor is to indicate that a proper order or relationship amongst these three elements of the soul is the key to a good life. In brief, the rational soul fulfills its function by identifying ends that are good and ordering the emotional soul towards these ends and thereby enlisting it to keep the desiring soul in check. In other words, the lion serves the human and guards the many-headed beast. In the context of the dialogue, internal conflict is the result of disorder amongst these elements. The Republic dialogue largely consists in an extended conceit in which the state or republic is made to represent the soul. Thus, the state of internal coherence is represented by a harmonious republic while internal disorder is represented, in turn, by tyranny and civil war. 

The same tripartite concept of the soul is also present in Paul’s letters in the New Testament, where he speaks of anthropos somatikos, anthropos psychikos, and anthropos pneumatikos. These terms can be roughly translated as “carnal man,” “psychic” or “soul man,” and “spiritual man,” despite that we lack very clear concepts of any of those words in our time. What, for instance, is the difference between the soul and the spirit, according to the popular conception? Perhaps Freud has taken a step towards regaining some of the significance of these concepts. It is possible to see the birth of psychoanalysis as the reversal of a trend toward reductionism that had seen the 3-part man become the 2-part man (i.e. beginning from the 4th Ecumenical Council in 869 AD and continuing with the Early Modern thinkers like Descartes) become purely biological man (i.e. beginning with Darwin’s The Descent of Man in 1871). Many people today still speak in this way, when they, for instance, equate “human nature” with “the human genome,” or invoke evolutionary biology to explain ever facet of human life. Perhaps we will begin to see a richer concept of the human being in our lifetimes. I would be happy to see such a development and I try to contribute in the ways that I am capable. 

On the incommensurability of scenarios surrounding mask mandates:

One element that is rarely addressed in press-releases advocating mask mandates or by the authorities promulgating and imposing them is the discrepancy between (a) the N-95 masks used in virtually any study that indicates negative correlation between SARS-CoV-2 transmission and masking in comparison to (b) the wide array of masks that people employ under a mask mandate, ranging from cheese-cloth masks to gasmasks. It would be surprising if this discrepancy had no relevance to the question of mask efficacy and, by extension, the justification of policies mandating these measures.

To my knowledge, there seems to be no difference in COVID-19 rates observed between states with mask mandates and those without. Given this data point, one might infer that mask mandates are not effective. But if it were established that even generic masks nevertheless reduced viral transmission, then in order to account for this data point, further hypotheses would have to be considered. Perhaps something about the mandate itself is actually negatively influencing the mechanical efficacy of masking. Perhaps mask mandates encourage people to take fewer ulterior precautions, or perhaps it exerts a deleterious influence on the physiology and psychology of individuals that cancels out any potential benefit of masking. I don’t have the answer about this but the question seems germane.

 And still, even if the situation was otherwise and it were not the case that mask mandates appear to have no positive effect in respect to limiting the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the fact of this material efficacy alone does not justify them. They might still be justified, only the reason would have to be more than a scientific one. Scientific evidence alone does not settle the question of mandates and it does not tell us what we should do one way or another—it merely presents quantitative correlations between variables. As Plato says, “a physician may be able to cure a man, but a physician cannot always tell whether he would be better off dead.” Clearly, we would entirely arrest the spread of the virus if we were all dead, but that makes no sense and turns our interaction with the virus into a false holy war and its eradication into a false summum bonum that should be pursued at all costs and by any means. Any policy is a question of facts that have been weighed in respect to values (i.e. the Good). Slowing the spread of this virus is one concern, but it is one concern among many and it is not self-evident before argument and analysis that this single concern should trump all others. By analogy, we could save many lives by mandating certain other restrictive health measures. A ban on junk food, or internet after 11 PM, or the implementation of “exercise passports” would undoubtedly save more lives in the long run than any masking mandates will accomplish. But these mandates are not on the table because in these instances, it is recognized that the concrete situations contain more than a single variable. Personally, I am just as happy not to engage in the first two things as I am to engage in the exercise without having to account for it to one or another authority. But I would defend anyone’s right not to do these things. For a reason that escapes me, our conceptions of COVID-19 have largely failed to take into account the difference between models which isolate specific variables out of infinitely rich and complex contexts and the concrete realities that include these contexts.

On genealogical identitarianism:

It is not uncommon the hear the refrain, presumably justified by research into the human genome of the last several decades, that “everyone is about 99.9% identical according to science.” To say that “everyone is about 99.9% identical according to science” is a conclusion that follows from the premise that “identity” is equivalent to “the genome” in the same way that “water” is identical to “H2O” and that “Venus” is equivalent both to the “Morning Star” and the evening one. But is this really true? By the same logic, every human would be approximately 70% identical to a peach and anything without a genome would simply have no identity altogether. In an attempt to think this through, I find I cannot. But again, the notion of our virtual identity with every other human being is predicated on having first taken for granted the premise that the genome is the same thing as identity. It seems to me that the latter cannot possibly be true and hence I see no reason to accept the former. When it comes down to it, biologists serve as credible authorities within the specialty of their fields. But by the same token, they often fail to serve as credible authorities outside of those same fields. For this reason, I have no reservations about rejecting a conclusion that a nonsensical argument advances.

On the contrary to the theory of genetic determinism, it seems clear to me that because actual human beings are clearly not 99.9% identical to one another and not 70% identical to a fruit tree in spite of these genetic ratios, therefore the basis of identity must be sought elsewhere than the genome. This is not to say that genetics is wrong per se, but only that it is a mistake to extrapolate conclusions from within that field to questions that lie beyond it. 

Photo by ShonEjai on Pexels.com

2 Comments Add yours

  1. On the incommensurability of scenarios surrounding…mandates:

    Fear not.

    Underneath the arguments about whether or not to take a vaccine glides something older, deeper, slower: something with all the time in the world. Some great spirit whose work is to use these fractured times to reveal to us all what we need to see: things hidden since the foundation of the modern world.

    Of what “great spirit” does Kingsnorth write here? Yeats’ “rough beast,” perhaps? This is not exactly news. The “rough beast” had been winding its way toward Bethlehem long before William Butler Yeats ever put pen to paper to stream The Second Coming.

    As for the apocalypse: it’s obviously an apocalypse that needed to happen and is. Can we rejoice about that part, at least?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Amor fati: “may I love what is necessary”

      Liked by 1 person

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