11.21.2008

Monism and Dualism (part deux)

The other day I argued that metaphysical discourse is often essentially the same thing as political discourse. Unfortunately, "etherealists" tend to believe they are apolitical while they smoke pipes and discuss the nature of G-d or the definition of the Soul, and materialists tend to believe they are successfully avoiding metaphysics by speaking about political policies and candidates in strictly practical terms. Although they disagree about where to place emphasis, both groups accept the essential-dual nature of reality (material vs. ethereal); neither group genuinely understands the "Monist" position, and consequently, both groups can be characterized as Dualists. I have mentioned before my recent favorite book of literary criticism, E Pluribus Unum, by W.C. Harris (2005). In the chapter on Poe, Harris argues that Poe's apparently super-ethereal cosmology is in fact a dialogue that bears heavily on political conversation. He writes,
Given the entrenched nature of certain perceptions of Poe [Harris alludes here to the consensus view that Poe was purely an aesthetician, unconcerned with practical affairs] and his work, specific objections should be addressed at the outset. One is that if Poe means to address problems of social organization, cosmology is an oblique way to do so... [but] cosmology is always about the construction, revision, and legitimation of social order. (46)
Unfortunately for Monists, Dualists make up an overwhelming percentage of the citizenry. Poe is dumped in the pre-established and easily-ignorable "etherealist heap," and thinkers like Marx are thought to be entirely free of theological concerns (as if re-establishing the principles of Justice could take place without a corresponding redefinition of G-d).

What I want to emphasize is the overwhelmingness of the Dualist position. The Dualist camp includes both hardline Democrats and hardline Republicans, devout Evangelicals and committed atheists. Against such an established orthodoxy, thinking in the manner of a Monist -- and ultimately speaking as a Monist -- is not only difficult, it is dangerous. It is important to point out here that most nominally religious people are not Monists. They go to church on Sunday, and work the rest of the week in the real world; or they responsibly differentiate between a literalist interpretation and a "reform" or contemporary interpretation. John Wesley made this point very clearly:
And so say all the world, the men who know not God, of all that are of Paul's religion: of every one who is so a follower of him as he was of Christ. It is true, there is a sort of religion, nay, and it is called Christianity too, which may be practised without any such Imputation, which is generally allowed to be consistent with common sense, --that is, a religion of form, a round of outward duties, performed in a decent, regular manner. You may add orthodoxy thereto, a system of right opinions, yea, and some quantity of heathen morality; and yet not many will pronounce, that "much religion hath made you mad." But if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of "righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost," then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, "Thou art beside thyself."
We know how it ended for Jesus. Same story for 8th century Persian mystic, Al-Hallaj, who was crucified for eliminating the conceptual differences between himself and G-d. As William James points out in his chapter on "Mysticism" in Varieties of Religious Experience, the mystical/Monistic way of thinking surfaces occasionally in all cultures, and leads inevitably to a disintegration of the differentiating consciousness ("The mind is a cleaver," if you remember Thoreau's way of putting it). Look at what happened to Paul when he said too much in front of Festus:
I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike... At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." "I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable." (Acts 26)
Here a related point arises: there seems to be some connection between the Monistic way of thinking and what Festus calls "great learning." Consider Socrates. Consider Lao Tzu. Consider Plotinus. Consider Meister Eckart and Julian of Norwich. Consider Emmanuel Swedenborg and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each monistic thinker is the product of considerably great learning... gaining this vision of the One, a vision that William James declared to be the single connecting bond between all mystical experience, seems to be the product of intense study. Here's how Socrates puts it:
And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world... (Bk. 7 emphasis added)
And "Oh, by the way," Socrates should have added, "his contemporaries will think him mad, and seek to put him in a psyche-ward if he insists on trying to communicate his vision of the absolute good. If he's very unlucky, they'll make him drink hemlock."

I don't have much to add, other than to say: "I'm sure glad I'm not a Monist! That would be a tough life..." and maybe, additionally: "We should be more compassionate, perhaps we should even listen better, to the people we describe as insane." Maybe I have one more little saying to add: "If you've never been accused, seriously, of talking crazy -- if you've never disconcerted people by your speech -- chances are you haven't been speaking the Monistic vision."

Back to dualism tomorrow: I've been meaning to get to a discussion of the defintions of death (within this context of Monism and Dualism), but this post is already bloated.



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