“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”
About the only thing that could change America’s direction, would be a nuclear holocaust – such were, more or less, the exact words during my visit to the USA of a sincere Christian in a conversation regarding changing America from its materialistic life and ways. This individual was not angry or vindictive – nor was he preaching traditional Biblical apocalyptic “hellfire and brimstone” against America’s sins, as many of America’s “Bible-thumping” evangelists have done for more than a century there. What he was saying was that the direction and life of American society was so preponderantly and pervasively towards material possessions, concerns, occupations and “values”, that only something truly profound, large-scale, unavoidable, and life-threatening, could now alter the mass collective ongoing attitudes and progression of this multi-millionfold nation of people. The problem, the “materialism” (this sense of the word is first found in Hawthorne in his 1851 “The Snow Image”), is so widespread and deep in America today, that only something enormous could make America wake up to its own low ways and preoccupations, and pay attention to the deeper human and spiritual realities of life, world and humanity – this was the idea behind his rhetorical lament.
Thomas à Kempis is credited, in his The Imitation of Christ (ca. 1441), as being the source of the well-known Latin expression: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Passing are all the glories of this world). American consumer culture, and the common idea of the successful “American Dream”, whether they believe in it or not, are predicated on a profoundly different view of life and world than this, which multi-millions follow. In Santa Cruz (Spanish for “Holy Cross”), California – where many people believe and imagine that they have the very best, most natural, liberated life in the USA – it was necessary to entitle an unpopular public lecture there in the late 1980’s:
The USA Too Shall Pass Away.
From “weightless”, “new age”, liberal, pluralistic, vegetarian, politically- and ecologically correct places in California, to the most politically-, socially- and culturally-conservative, illiberal, meat-eating, culture of “Bible-belt” America – as well as in Japan, Germany and Russia, et al – I have been compelled gradually to notice a fundamental tendency in human society, in humanity, that to me is fundamental and indispensable to recognize, and admit, in order to seriously understand the human and social conditions around us, including its spreading, popular “materialism”: man’s desire for spiritual sleep. Now what does this mean more precisely? It means that man, traditionally viewed to be a troubled soul-mixture of spirit and flesh, angel and animal, noble and ignoble, good and evil, has a strong tendency, to avoid intellectual and spiritual striving, struggle and pain, and to rest and sleep as a mere physical creature – something like crawling up into one’s own body to go to spiritual sleep, thereby avoiding spiritual or intellectual struggle and challenge. After two decades of closely observing humanity (in many of the world’s nations), while simultaneously studying mankind’s history, religions, theology, philosophy, literature, etc., I have come to see that the majority of men and women in any society at any time are essentially seeking to intellectually rest, to spiritually sleep; that they are passive; determined by the culture, society, tradition and conditions around them. They are what one might call the sleeping majority. As „Der Herr“, The Lord, says in the “Prologue in Heaven” (lines 340-344) in Goethe’s Faust (and here he presented his version of one of the deeper conceptions of the position of evil and suffering in the condition of life and man):
Des Menschen Tätigkeit kann allzu leicht erschlaffen,
Er liebt sich bald die unbedingte Ruh;
Drum geb ich gern ihm den Gesellen zu,
Der reizt und wirkt und muß als Teufel schaffen.
Man’s activity can all too easily sleep,
He quickly loves unlimited rest;
So I gladly give to him this friend,
Who stirs and works, and must as Devil create.
It is interesting to consider that such distant figures as St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) spoke of all of mankind, together, as constituting the complete human being. One might add to this that the complete human being is rather large in that which is unconscious (the body); that only a small portion of the entire human being is awake, thoughtful, mindful, conscious, compared to how much is beneath consciousness and deliberate effort. If all of humanity – ca. 5 billion – in all of its apparent diversity, in some way constitutes the complete human being, then this fact of the human body accounts in an analogous way for the “sleep” of the majority; it is the large, multi-organed physical body, with all of its (mostly unconscious) structures, processes, functions, etc. Here few people constitute, almost by nature, the inner, conscious life and light of mankind – recalling that “Adam” (from Hebrew for “man”) was mythically said to be buried at the same place where Christ (christos, from chrío, Greek for to anoint with oil – on the head), was crucified on Golgotha, which means “the place of the skull”.
A “myth”, of a heavenly, “macrocosmic man”, come down, and divided up, hierarchically, to form a layered-pyramid of society, as well as the levels of the cosmos and nature, is ancient and recurrent. The American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), in his famous and influential speech called “The American Scholar Address”, given before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College on August 31, 1837, said:
“The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man – present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man.”
And in the early 17th century, a part of Russian oral tradition was recorded in “The Poem of the Dove Book” («Стих о голубиной книге»), wherein a related conception of the idea of “One Man” and society is revealed:
Czars and czarinas coming into being
From the head of honest Adam.
Princes and heroes come into being
From the bones of honest Adam.
The orthodox peasants come into being
From the knee of holy Adam.
(Bruce Lincoln, Myth, Cosmos and Society)
One can see the similarity here to the well-known ancient, traditional, and remaining caste system of India, and the historical hierarchical societies of Europe and elsewhere in the remnants of many of the world’s ancient, traditional cultures. All of these societies stand in deep contrast, and continuing, unresolved tension, to the Enlightenment’s, modern social ideal, which in America, in the Declaration of Independence, is well-known as:
…all men are created equal…
Similarly, beginning – as we shall see in a moment – with the very earliest beginnings of human culture, and revealing itself in St. Paul’s well-known Biblical division of humanity (as well as the individual person) into those of the body (soma), of the soul (psyche) and of the spirit (pneuma), Thoreau, almost nineteen centuries later in Concord, Massachusetts, in his book Walden, described humanity as he saw it around him then and there:
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor, but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic and divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”
According to these “Thoreauvian mathematics”, American society today, with its population of some 240,000,000 people, would have about 240 “awake enough for effective intellectual exertion”, and 2 or 3 people “to a poetic and divine life”. Anyone who knows the cultural conditions in America well, cannot help but be brought to serious reflection on these figures – regardless of America’s Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, its democracy, Congress and Senate, its Supreme Court, or its “Superstars” and super rich.
From the perspective of 1920’s Spain, and Europe, in the well-known The Revolt of the Masses (1930), Ortega y Gasset wrote:
“As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men – and of women – are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. And for that reason, the few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated, monumentalised, so to speak, in our experience. These are the select men, the nobles, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving, an incessant course in training.”
One cannot, in my view, understand American society – or any other society – without understanding the social realities described by these and other observers. Yet one must also say with John Donne:
no man is an island, entire of himself…
Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1726) – who is controversially viewed with pride by some “materialist” scientists as the first “real scientist”, but the secret papers of which led Lord John Maynard Keynes, the famous and influential economist, to call him “the last of the magicians”– believed for most of his life that the deepest truths of man, nature and cosmos were known in the earliest ages of man, and that such ideas became confused, lost, or degraded over time. (There are, as it is well known, many myths which give such accounts of the devolution, the gradual, periodic degrading of truth.) And while the now famous ancient Indian Rig-Veda text (one from the earliest records in human history) was learned of in Europe only after Newton’s lifelong interest in all such ancient lore, there is the ancient idea that Man, as a great spiritual heavenly being (also known as the “macroanthropos”, “Primal Man”, Urmensch, “Adam Kadmon”, etc.), came down gradually, and hierarchically, into the natural-material and social world and life. Newton had studied such ideas via the related traditions of the Neo-Platonic, Pythagorean, Egyptian-Hermetic lores, which were known in his time, and which he privately avidly collected and studied. As “Man” is described in the famous chapter of Rig-Veda 10.90, “Song of Purusa” (Purusha-Sukta, composed ca. 900 BC):
When they divided Purusa (“Man”), how many pieces did they prepare?
What was his mouth? What are his arms, thighs, and feet called?
The priest was his mouth, the warrior was made from his arms:
His thighs were the commoner, and the servant was made from his feet.
The moon was born of his mind; of his eye, the sun was born;
From his mouth, Indra and fire; from his breath, wind was born.
From his navel there was the atmosphere; from his head, heaven was rolled together;
From his feet, the earth; from his ear, the cardinal directions.
(From Bruce Lincoln, Myth, Cosmos, and Society, p. 3)
Remains of such “myths” – of the macrocosmic and microcosmic man – are to be found in many places unto our time, including in the traditional symbols of kings and czars for example (crown, shield, orb/scepter), or the Statue of Liberty’s radiant-crown.
When one attends to the “materialism” in America today, it is important to remember parts of America’s history. The Puritans, for example, made the dangerous sea journey over the Atlantic Ocean to “New England” to found a more pure, religious Christian community. Later, the so-called “Founding Fathers” (who rejected the institution of a king, and much of Puritan theology) of the United States of America were very aware of the danger that “luxury” would have for the integrity and values of the young newly-united republic. As the American historian Page Smith argued in his 1994 book Rediscovering Christianity:
“Could it not be predicted that a nation enjoying liberty and based on democratic principles would prosper, and would not that prosperity breed luxury, and with luxury would surely come the emergence of a rich and spoiled class, lacking in civic virtue and Christian austerity...”
Emerson, Thoreau, and others in American history, have warned America against material priorities. And James Truslow Adams, who, as readers of American Reflections know, coined the now popular expression “American Dream” in the 1930s, warned of the fatal danger to America, if it became based solely on material values ...
“The business man, moreover, is merely the purveyor and not a creator of the real values of civilization. If under his dominance the business philosophy indicated above takes – as it seems to be doing – increasing control upon the universities, the churches, the professions, and the people at large, it may be asked how long shall we have our creators? If the fundamental idea underlying our civilization [USA] . . . is to become that of a business profit, it is inevitable that we shall decline in the scale of what has hitherto been considered civilization as contrasted with barbarism in the Greek sense.” (“A business man’s civilization”, 1929).
It would be easy to fill pages with quotations of other Americans and Europeans against material luxury, comfort, etc., as the primary goal of life and pursuit of man; and yet America can be easily criticized today for its materialistic civilization – the idea that “business profit” pervades the society and culture. One who views the human condition with kindred critical comments, can perhaps agree that much of the world is now more or less copying this American way of life – America’s materialism, America’s spiritual sleep. And here I with others argue saying that America is setting, has set, a poor (if inevitable) example of a society, culture and civilization before the world – and that America’s “sleep” is now spread, or spreading, to every remaining people and country in the world. (At the ending of the “twentieth century”, the question would need be rather, where has it not spread!) If the majority of people in any society are passive, and prefer “spiritual sleep”, then this process is perhaps unavoidable – something akin to the consequences of the “Fall of Man”. Will Russia, at least the masses of Russia, succumb to “Americanization”? Yes, if – as I have written before – Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” is a good psychologist; and his disturbing comments on the millions are not too distant from the more calm comments of Thoreau in Walden. In the past year it has been possible to hear reports of the problems of “Americanization” in such countries as France, Egypt, India, China, and others.
Yes, as it is argued by some, who often have an inadequate knowledge, estimation or feel of American civilization, and who defend the “spirituality” of the USA, there is the well-known figure of 93% of the USA population who – surveys show – say they believe in “God, or a universal spirit”. But this “theoretical” level of life in the USA, does not determine or explain the realities of daily life, social conditions – but the materialistic civilization and occupations predominately do! Again, as I wrote before in English (August No. 31, 1996), Americans live their daily lives as if God were inattentive – sleeping; whatever they may “believe”. Or, as I recently found in Eckermann’s account of Goethe in his last month of life:
“To hear people speak,” said Goethe, “you would almost believe they were of the opinion God has withdrawn into silence since those old times [here he referred to the old times of the Chinese, Indians, Persians, Greeks, Christianity], and man was now placed quite upon his own feet and had to see how he could get on without God and his daily invisible breath. In religious and moral matters, a divine influence is indeed still allowed; but in matters of science and art it is believed that they are merely earthly, and nothing but the product of human powers.”
America – which has portions of all of humanity’s cultures, races, peoples, nations, etc. – has set a low material example before the world. It began as an ideal of a Biblical “city on a hill” – but now the city is mis-populated by “the rich and famous”, “superstars”, of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, et al. In the 1920’s, already, the historian James Truslow Adams criticized America’s pridefully-claimed
highest standard of living in the world as being a highest standard on a low plane, the material, and not the spiritual or cultural plane. Perhaps the “body” of mankind cannot but tend to do so. But whether it be the critiques of Emerson and Thoreau in Concord, Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, or Dostoyevsky and Vladimir Solovyov in Moscow, the tendency towards “materialism” – what Solovyov somewhere described as the “nightmare of a sleeping humanity” – predominates in the life of the majority. Considering American civilization and its values, the Statue of Liberty is all too often viewed by multi-millions world-wide as a symbol of the freedom to get rich and materially wealthy. And it is a fact that in this century – but one day this too shall pass – America has come to be the world’s leading example of a widespread material wealth and consumer culture, as Paris and London were previously. But still, conditions in America make clear that this does not really satisfy the human troubled, ambiguous spirit, nor establish the basis for a healthy society and culture. Anyone who has ever tried to physically sleep more than the body really needs, knows what a poor, unhealthy, beclouded, dissatisfying feeling this can bring about. (As reported on the Voice of America, recent (1998) sociological surveys reveal that fully 1/3 of the US population is “clinically obese”.) But the tendency towards “spiritual sleep”, towards passive copying, is clearly pervasive in far more than the USA. The lability of peoples as once-distinct and -distant as Japan, Nepal, Iran, Germany and Russia, to copy America (be that its suburban house life; images of Hollywood, California; Disneyland’s culture; “New Age”, or other,) shows the tendency towards sleep, towards passivity.
The globalization of culture is possible due to the nature of humanity, as well as some apparent worldwide inadequacy of tribal traditions and cultures. Is it not in the common “sleeping” nature of mankind for millions around the world to tend rather towards an interest and fascination with the ephemeral life and culture of Hollywood (“tinsel town”, as it is also tellingly called), California, or Los Vegas, Nevada in America, rather than the infinitely deeper and interesting culture and legacy of 19th century Concord, Massachusetts, USA (where many of America’s best spirits lived and wrote)? The millions flock to Hollywood but how many pilgrimage to America’s Concord Massachusetts? Watching common Russians reading – as their societal counterparts in most of the world’s nations and cultures do also – magazine accounts of the gossip, lives and world philosophy of Hollywood’s misnamed “Super Stars”, shows – to say it politely – how passive, how determined by outer forces (like advertising, pop[ular] culture, global television, etc.) are the lives of common average, “mass” men and women. Watching Russians wearing t-shirts showing the names of American cities and US sports teams, or of huge multi-national companies like “Adidas”, “Reebok”, etc. – as if they were not thereby unpaid walking advertisements – must be seen as a transnational, transcultural manifestations of the human being. Seeing Russian (and Japanese, and Nepalese, and Czech et al) youth copy American clothing styles, mannerisms, pop music – shows additionally the passive, “childlike” character of many people. And this condition is not as harmless and innocuous as these easy examples would indicate, for the most common response as to why, for example, average German citizens participated in many of the Nazi atrocities (which these people would “normally” not have done!), was that they were “just following orders”. And the mass love of Stalin, revealed at his death, is another example of how the crowd psychology can be manipulated and controlled. In 1991 the majority of Moscow’s population were apparently passively waiting to see who would win the struggle in the attempted coup. The semi-conscious, smug American nationalistic feeling of being better than most other nations is another example of mass psychology; but these are not Russian or “American”, or “Japanese”, nor “German” characteristics – though each nation has its special aspects in this way. (Bismarck seems to have described the Russian character as “feminine”, and the Japanese are well known for their group-identity.)
This is not a very “complimentary” conclusion about the life and being of man, but I am clear that it is one of the most fundamental facts of any human society. Watching many Russians (after Germans and Japanese) variously copying America – for example in their foolish and empty TV programs, or clothing, mannerisms, perfumes, expressions, etc, etc, etc, – does not allow me to forget the passivity with which Americans live either – setting a low materialistic example before the world.
The American Christian, wondering how to change the dismaying direction and decay of American culture and society, suggested rhetorically such a tremendous shock as “nuclear holocaust”, to pervasively change America from its materialistic, “passing” ways.
The tendency towards “spiritual sleep”, towards passive being, cannot be underestimated in trying to understand the human condition which we find around us, and of which we are all a part. Those thoughtful and “above” this condition, must needs be cognizant that the majority of those around us, do and will continue in the future to reveal all sorts of social, political, cultural and intellectual tendencies towards being man – the creature who prefers spiritual sleep.
First published in the magazine English, #1, January 2000, p. 12.