by Butler Shaffer
by Butler Shaffer
The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
~ C.S. Lewis
Just before Christmas, my three daughters, their husbands, and I went to see the movie Narnia. I have never been attracted to fantasy: listening to politicians and other collectivists spin out the blueprints of their air castles has been enough for me. It is for much the same reason that, unlike so many of my libertarian acquaintances, I have never been the least bit interested in science fiction. Contrary to what others might think, I am not a utopian. I am only interested in discovering the kinds of realistic social arrangements that can overcome the destructiveness of our institutionalized conditioning, and foster the free, peaceful, and cooperative qualities that provide what the late Joseph Campbell termed the “invisible means of support” to life. In this search, I have found a number of thinkers quite valuable as catalysts for the development of my own understanding.
Human cognition and conceptualization of the world is inherently divisive (i.e., we categorize our experiences in terms of the “living” and “non-living,” of “furniture” and “non-furniture,” etc.). Our minds are probably incapable of functioning in any other manner. At the same time, however, we are able to be aware that this is how we think. Such an awareness allows us to intuit a wholeness to the world that transcends the dualistic patterns upon which our conscious minds insist.
There is an intrinsic interrelatedness to what our minds tell us are irreconcilable “opposites.” The meanings of “vice” and “virtue” are as dependent upon one another as are the two blades of a pair of scissors. As Einstein informed us, “motion” has meaning only in terms of the relationship of one body to another. The “poverty” of which politicians love to prattle has meaning — and will always have meaning — only in this relative way. Judged by the relative standards of medieval society, most of America's “poor” enjoy material standards that no monarch could command: central heating and air conditioning; electric power with its radios, televisions, and VCRs; modern plumbing; automobiles; and telephones.
C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand come to mind as two persons who have played a role in the transformation of my own thinking. I am not a “religious” person (at least in the conventional sense of that word), nor do I consider myself an “objectivist.” Nonetheless, I have found an exploration of the intelligent religious inquiries — such as provided by Lewis, Joseph Campbell, Elaine Pagels, et al. — and the atheistic writings of Rand — along with Robert Ingersoll, George Smith, and other intelligent minds on the topic — most helpful in the development of my own thinking.
If one pushes the thinking of C.S. Lewis up against that of Ayn Rand, one can discover an area within which the seemingly irreconcilable “opposites” of “religion” and “reason” can dissolve into a kind of interrelatedness that is integrative, rather than divisive, of the qualities that are conducive to life. So informed, life takes on a deeper spiritual dimension than can be found in the well-memorized doctrines and dogmas that accompany the fragmented and isolated pursuit of understanding.
A willingness to explore this interrelatedness of apparent opposites does not involve a weakening of either approach to learning about ourselves: on the contrary, in allowing us to see beyond the limited boundaries set by our dualistic thinking, we are able to gain an enhanced sense of who we are. When isolated within the confines of any belief system, our sense of “religion” can become warped; as it was when Pat Robertson prayed for Supreme Court vacancies, urged the assassination of the president of Venezuela, or interpreted Ariel Sharon's stroke as divine retribution for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Likewise, a “reasoning” that has been partitioned from the spiritual dimension can lead one to such pronouncements as were made by the Ayn Rand Institute's Leonard Peikoff. In response to the attacks of 9/11, Peikoff endorsed a virtually unlimited exercise of destructive force against any nation involved therein. This included a willingness to employ, if need be, nuclear weapons against even “the countless innocents caught in the line of fire [who] suffer and die because of the action of their government in sponsoring the initiation of force against America.” Robertson and Peikoff each exhibit the violent and destructive nature of the self-righteous thinking that can arise when rationality and spirituality do not inform one another.
But how is this exploration of seeming opposites to occur? We live in a world in which people find it increasingly easy to rationalize all kinds of torture, butchery, despotism, and theft against others. As we have seen, there are secular and religious voices alike prepared to lend their sanction to such dehumanized behavior. We live in a world in which, to borrow from Cole Porter, “anything goes.” There appear to be no depths of absurdity to which statists are unprepared to go in testing the foolishness of Boobus Americanus. The Federal Aeronautics Administration has proposed regulating the commercial space tourism industry in order to (yes, you've guessed it) prevent terrorists from using such spacecraft as terrorist weapons! In a world that revels in such nonsense — provided it comes from exalted institutional sources — how are we to distill a basis for proper behavior in our dealings with others?
One means by which such ends might be accomplished is through the use of myths and fables; stories that have been used to help children learn to distinguish “truth” from “falsehood,” “good” from “bad,” and “virtuous” behavior from “wrongdoing.” Aesop's Fables, fairy-tales, folklore, and other means have long been used to help children learn to make moral judgments about the variety of choices that are available to them in life. The Narnia and Star Wars films, among others, and such stories as The Wizard of Oz, are some of the better-known vehicles for such instruction.
The problem I have with such stories relates to how they are presented to children. An important aspect of learning how to explore the interrelatedness of apparent opposites has to do with how we think of ourselves. Carl Jung is one of many persons who has focused attention on the human tendency to “project” personal characteristics onto others. Most of us are familiar with this practice in projecting our “dark side” fears onto “scapegoats,” who we then punish for the shortcomings we have about ourselves. Politics could not survive without our largely unconscious willingness to project fears of our own dishonesty, violence, laziness, bigotry, greed, irresponsibility, or other self-doubts, onto others, against whom the state promises to act.
But we have virtuous qualities that we seem equally desirous of projecting onto others. Each of us has the capacity for exceptionally creative, courageous, or even heroic behavior, but a lack of self-assurance often gets in our way. And so we look to others to express such qualities in our stead: a hero or heroine drawn, perhaps, from the motion picture or television screen, an athletic field, or a news story.
Whether we are projecting positive or negative traits about ourselves onto others, we are rejecting our personal sense of self. In so doing, we take ourselves out of the world as actors, and content ourselves with being spectators at a show scripted in our own minds from “heroes” and “villains” of our casting. This is a principal reason that the entertainment industry seems to thrive during the decline of civilizations: individuals become content with moral, intellectual, and existential passivity, preferring to live their lives through projected extensions of themselves with whom they identify.
Properly employed, myths, fables, and fairy-tales help children learn to distinguish the polar differences offered by such stories — not for the purpose of trying to identify “heroes” and “villains” upon whom to attach ones' sense of being, but for the purpose of discovering and accepting such traits within oneself. A person who regards himself or herself as capable of generating the values for living well, will be disinclined to call upon the state for such purposes. Likewise, one who acknowledges and accepts his or her “dark side” is less disposed to act upon such traits and, as Jung informs us in his work on “individuation,” less likely to become part of the “mass-mindedness” that statists find so easy to mobilize through the use of fear.
Such an expanded personal dimension to the use of myths and fables might also help to overcome the only objection I had to the Narnia film — as well as to similar stories. When children learn to discover themselves as active moral, intellectual, and creative agents in the world, they may no longer find satisfaction in the terrible message offered at the end of this film: that the reward for heroic behavior is getting to have political power over others.
January 18, 2006
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.
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