Skip to content

Monthly Archives: December 2014

There’s room for theists and atheists at the watering-hole of humanism

Wisdom is a watering-hole at which animals of many different species can come and drink – as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or attack each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour.

Last month, I took part in a slightly silly stunt for World Philosophy Day. I and some other writer-types dressed up in togas and re-created Raphael’s School of Athens on the steps of St Paul’s. There are Cynics, Stoics, Platonists and various ‘not sures’ among us, all gathered together to celebrate wisdom. Our number included a theologian, Nick Spencer from the Christian think-tank Theos, in the orange-and-red toga on the right. I’ll come back to him.

SchoolofLondonDirkchoice-746x488

I love Raphael’s painting, because it’s a portrait of intellectual friendship. There are philosophers of many different creeds gathered together in the painting, but they’re not denouncing each other or cutting each other’s heads off. They’re enjoying a friendly conversation. The intellectual diversity of the scene is all the more remarkable considering the mural is on Pope Julius II’s library wall in the Vatican Palace.

The painting reminds me of a group I have met up with fairly regularly for the last year or so. It grew out of the RSA’s spirituality project, organized by Jonathan Rowson. Some of the people involved in that group started to meet at each other’s homes for dinner every couple of months.

The group members hold a wide variety of metaphysical positions – for example, they include Toby Flint, who runs the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, and also Pippa Evans, who founded the Sunday Assembly, the humanist church. Toby and Pippa get on like a church on fire, not least because they have a similar sense of humour, and a similar desire to help people and provide them with community.

I think the fact that the founder of an atheist church and the organizer of the Alpha course can meet in friendship and humour is a triumph of Anglicanism. I define Anglicanism as broader than Christianity – Philip Pullman is a self-declared Anglican atheist, so is Richard Dawkins. It’s an open table, a shared culture of good humour, affability, and love of wisdom. The friendship between George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton is an example of Anglicanism. This exchange, on Twitter, between the Reverend Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins is another.

I think Anglican open-mindedness and friendliness is closely related to humanism. Humanism means a love of wisdom, particularly the wisdom of Greek and Roman philosophy. It also means a love of the arts and sciences, and a belief in their power to improve life. But above all, humanism is about people gathering together in friendship to share ideas, enjoying each other’s company even if we don’t share all of the same beliefs. As Terence put it: ‘I am human, nothing human is alien to me.’

Humanism is a social philosophy. It grew up in groups of friends, like the circle of Scipio, which helped bring Greek philosophy to Rome, or the humanist circles that flourished in 14th century Florence, around Boccaccio, Salutati, Bruni, and (some decades later) Marsilio Ficino, or in 15th century England and Holland, around Erasmus and Thomas More. These circles were quite heterogeneous – they might include Christians, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Kabbalists and Hermeticists. But they met in friendship and good humour.

Ficino’s Academy in Florence

My humanism is better than yours…

Today, alas, humanism is not quite such a broad or friendly church. One of my fellow toga-wearers from that gathering at St Paul’s, Nick Spencer of Theos, co-authored a report last week which bemoaned the fact that ‘humanism’ is now used to mean people who are non-religious or even anti-religious. The Theos report points out that there’s a long and proud tradition of Christian humanism too. Fair enough.

But the report then insists that Christian humanism is the best form of humanism, while atheist humanism doesn’t actually make sense. Na na na, my humanism is better than your humanism. This naturally riled atheist humanists, who called the report a land-grab, a ‘trolling of a whole world-view’. So, alas, what could have been an essay celebrating the shared foundations of Christian and secular humanism instead turned into a slanging match.

I am all for Christian humanism. I spent several years exploring and celebrating Greek and Roman philosophy and how people use it today. By the end of that journey, I was beginning to explore Christianity, and I’ve gone to church for the last two years. But I still take part in things like Stoic Week, because what I love about Greek philosophy – and wisdom in general – is that it can help free people from suffering no matter what their precise metaphysical beliefs.

At the heart of all humanisms is the belief that wisdom heals. This idea is at the heart of Christian humanism, Islamic humanism, Jewish humanism, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian humanism, and atheist or agnostic humanism. We might have different ideas about where beauty and wisdom come from, or what happens to us after death, but we can still agree on certain ideas and practices which heal us of suffering and help us to flourish.

Wisdom is like a watering-pool at which animals of many different species can come and drink, as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or behead each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour. Humanisms of all stripes need to get along, to withstand the real enemies: on the one hand, narrow and violent fanaticism, on the other, apathy and indifference.

The decline of humanisms

Humanisms are not in great shape at the moment. The centuries-old tradition of Islamic humanism seems to be overwhelmed by fundamentalism. Likewise Jewish humanism. Secular humanism is often shrill, hectoring, hostile to outsiders, and keener to denounce than befriend. And Christian humanism is also in dramatic decline.

The old tradition of humanist Anglicanism – with its poetry, its music and architecture, its wisdom, its open-mindedness and good humour – has been replaced by a narrower evangelicalism imported from America and Africa. This evangelicalism is not all bad – it has energy and ecstasy (and there’s a long tradition of ecstasy in humanism). But the intellectual side of Christianity has been sidelined in favour of a gushing and uncritical emotionalism.

George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days
George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days

In previous centuries, Anglicans like George Herbert, or Thomas Traherne would have been as familiar with Greco-Roman arts and philosophy as with the Bible. Today, most Christians view philosophy as a threat, and would have no awareness at all of, say, Dante, Milton, Raphael or Bach. Church bookstores are filled with crass American evangelical tracts, and would never dream of stocking works by, say, Donne, Blake, TS Eliot, Launcelot Andrewes, Julian of Norwich, or Erasmus. Anglicanism is losing its humanist roots.

I remember seeing a priest at a mega-church, who told the huge congregation how much he loved Milton, then attributed this quote to him: ‘Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life.’ Anyone who thinks Milton said that has, clearly, never read Milton in their life. I don’t mind him not having read Milton, but don’t pretend you have, and check your facts before passing them on (in the same sermon he claimed the Segrada Familia in Barcelona was built in the 14th century).

The deeper problem with this anti-intellectualism is it encourages an uncritical emotionalism. Any testimony about God’s healing power is uncritically swallowed with whoops of joy and cries of wonder. Christians become utterly credulous, embarrassingly so. That makes it very easy for any ambitious preacher to manipulate them with made-up stories and anecdotes – even well-respected preachers are happy to pass on fabricated internet anecdotes as if they were gospel truth. If we can’t trust them on that, why should we trust them when they tell us the Bible is literally true?

And a second big problem with this anti-intellectualism is there is no sense in the modern church that wisdom heals. If you have emotional problems, the only solution is to pray to Jesus and hope He exorcises your pain. This anti-intellectualism would seem bizarre and primitive to humanist Anglicans like Thomas More or Thomas Traherne, who understood that wisdom empowers us to change our minds and heal ourselves. As that founding father of humanism, Cicero, put it, ‘there is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy’.

I wish more Christians knew this – it would help them suffer less from things like depression or ME. The celebration of wisdom is not anti-Christian, it’s completely Biblical. But when I offered to do a workshop on healing wisdom at my local church, the young evangelical vicar brushed it warily aside. So I did it at the Sunday Assembly instead.

Even the theology schools that are supposed to be making Anglicanism more culturally sophisticated are often anti-intellectual. I did a theology course at St Paul’s Theology School, run by Graham Tomlin – a wise Christian humanist who’s written books on Justin Martyr and others. The school’s ‘ethics course’ involves a session on euthanasia, in which a man with cystic fibrosis gives an impassioned testimony about why every life is sacred. This invariably reduces everyone to tears. The other side of the argument – that some terminally ill people might want to end their lives – is not even considered. This anti-intellectual emotionalism is typical of the modern church but astounding in a theology school.

As Christian humanism declines and the church grows narrower, it loses its connection to wider society, and turns in on itself. A Christian friend told me recently they didn’t have any secular friends. How many contemporary apologists have any sort of voice in the wider cultural conversation? They are not converting anyone, they’re just reassuring existing Christians. The cross-cultural friendships are absent. The bridges are closed.

911EtzXkUDLMeanwhile, a quiet tradition of Christian humanism carries on, and actually connects far more people to God, precisely because it does not insist people show their metaphysical credentials before inviting them to sit and eat. I think, for example, of the novels of Marilynne Robinson, or the poetry of George Herbert – brought to a wider audience recently by the biography of John Drury. These humanists are outside the church bubble, meeting their society in friendship, generously sharing the nourishment of Christian transcendence, without insisting people ‘surrender their yes to Jesus’.

Reading this again, I wonder if I sound like an intellectual snob. If I do, it’s probably because I am an intellectual snob. And obviously one of the good things about Christianity – compared to atheist humanism – is that it’s not intellectually snobbish, that it is a broad church which welcomes all, in which an illiterate fisherman might very well be closer to God than an academic. Still, what is also good about Christianity is that it’s a broad church with room for the humanist or intellectual side too. It’s a pity if that aspect of Christian culture disappears – more than a pity, in fact, a tragedy.

 

 

 

What the Stoic account of the emotions leaves out

socrates dionysusAt the end of Philosophy for Life, I asked what the Socratic-Stoic tradition of philosophy misses out, and suggested there is an alternate approach to life and to emotional healing, which I called the Dionysiac tradition:

The virtues of the Socratic tradition are self-control, rationality, self-consciousness and measure. The Socratic tradition typically puts forward a hierarchy of the psyche, in whcih the conscious, reasoning parts of the psyche are highest, and the intuitive, emotional and appetitive parts of the psyche are lowest. The Dionysiac tradition celebrates a very different way of life. Where Socrates preaches self-control, Dionysus urges us to lose ourselves in sex, music, dancing and ecstasy.

The Socratic approach uses conscious reasoning as the means to emotional healing and virtue. Our emotions are caused by – or in some sense are – our beliefs and judgements. Sometimes our beliefs are unwise or wrong, which causes us suffering. But we can use our reason to re-appraise, to think differently, believe and behave differently, and this will bring us healing and wisdom.

This is the idea at the heart of Socratic philosophy, and the Neo-Stoic or cognitive theory of the emotions which is found in cognitive psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and in the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum and many other virtue ethicists.

It’s true to an extent, and it can bring people a lot of healing. But it’s not the whole story. It is a partial account of the truth. It misses stuff out. If that’s all you know about the psyche, your philosophy of life will be over-rationalistic, and less effective than it could be in helping people heal and flourish.

Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

What I call the Dionysiac approach has a different theory of the emotions. It suggests that some forms of emotion – we might prefer to call them moods or feelings – are not primarily forms of cognitive appraisal. Instead, they are non-cognitive and physiological.

The Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System

Our body, our Autonomic Nervous System, our limbic system, reacts automatically to a stimulus with powerful physical reactions (gut feelings, skin tingling, heart palpitations, heavy or shallow breathing, involuntary limb movements and so on), which our neo-cortex may then appraise and turn into an emotion.

William James, the most famous defender of this theory, described it thus. We see a bear. Our heart starts pounding, our hair stands on end, our body is flooded with adrenaline, we jump out of our skin and start running away, and as we’re running, we think to ourselves ‘this is fear, I’m afraid of that bear’. The bodily reaction comes first, and then the mind recognizes the body’s reaction and categorizes it as an emotion. The emotion, James suggests, is the physiological response.

This more non-cognitive account of the emotions focuses particularly on the Autonomic Nervous System, also known as the visceral or involuntary nervous system, regulated by the hypothalamus and running through the ganglia to our pupils, hair, skin, heart, lungs, stomach, groin and limbs.

The ANS also seems to be involved in trance states or altered states of consciousness. Music, poetry or cinema, for example, appears to have the power to send us into trance states by operating directly on our ANS rather than through our conscious rational reasoning – we feel it in our gut, it makes our skin tingle, our pupils dilate, our heart pound, and before we know it we are crying or euphorically dancing, almost involuntarily (see particularly Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing). Our cognitive rationality is suspended, we go into a trance state, and are absorbed in the moment and the feeling.

The Stoics were aware of involuntary physiological reactions to shocks – they called them ‘first movements’. For example, a Stoic philosopher might be on a ship in a storm, and might turn pale and start shivering from fear. However, the Stoics insist it’s only an emotion if the philosopher gives their conscious assent to their physical reactions and thinks ‘this really is a scary and terrible situation’.

Seneca writes:

Emotion does not consist in being moved by the impressions that are presented to the mind, but in surrendering to these and following up such a chance movement. For if anyone supposes that pallor, falling tears, sexual excitement or a deep sigh, a sudden brightening of the eyes, and the like, are evidence of an emotion and a manifestation of the mind, he is mistaken, and fails to understand that these are just disturbances of the body.

So according to the Stoics, our ANS system may react powerfully to things – our toe may start tapping, our teeth may chatter, our heart may pound, our skin may tingle, we may even go into some kind of trance state or dissociative fit. The Stoic may feel all these things, but as long as the neo-cortex does not give its assent to these physical disturbances, it’s not an emotion, it’s ‘just disturbances of the body’. It’s a strange dualist separation of mind and body for a supposedly materialist philosophy.

On the one side, then, are the Stoics and Neo-Stoics like Martha Nussbaum, who defend a rationalist and cognitive theory of the emotions, in which any emotion must involve an evaluation or judgement of value. On the other side – the side which Nussbaum calls ‘the Adversary’ – are James, Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Jonathan Haidt, Pascal and other ‘intuitionists’, who challenge the cognitive theory of the emotions and insist that sometimes our moods, feelings and emotions don’t involve conscious rationality primarily or indeed at all. The ANS has its reasons of which the neo-cortex knows nothing, as Pascal almost put it.

Primary and secondary emotions

It’s a fault line that runs right through modern thinking about the emotions and the best way to heal them. Which is true?

It seems to me that both accounts are true, both capture something important about the emotions. Perhaps, as Antonio Damasio argues, there are two different ways we can feel emotions – primary and secondary. Primary emotions are mainly autonomic and physiological. These occur in all animals, and perhaps to some extent in plants too. Secondary emotions, by contrast, involve some cognitive evaluations or re-evaluations, both of our physical response and of the stimulus that prompted it. Secondary emotions involve the neo-cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain.

The Stoic or Neo-Stoic account tends to focus entirely on secondary emotions. As a result, Stoic therapy, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, tends to focus mainly on cognitive re-appraisal and re-thinking as the best method for emotional regulation and healing.

But that is not enough. It does not give an adequate account of our powerful emotional and visceral responses to, say, the arts, or sex, or nature, or drugs, or some forms of meditation or ecstatic religious experience. It gives an account of rational consciousness (probably involving the neo-cortex), but not of other states of consciousness which are more hypnagogic or trance.

Stoics and Neo-Stoics are suspicious of these sorts of visceral emotional states because they are so powerful, and because they seem to by-pass or over-throw our rationality (which they insist is the sovereign or divine part of us). That’s why Plato is so suspicious of poetry – it creates a form of ecstasy in which we are no longer master of our self, and Plato’s philosophy is all about becoming master of your self.

Dilated pupils: one of the classic somatic responses of the ANS

But here’s the key point. Our Autonomic Nervous System is not entirely Autonomic. We can consciously engage in practices which operate through the route of ‘primary emotions’, that’s to say, directly into our ANS. This can be very healing, helping us to alter the ‘milieu’ or baseline of our daily moods in a way that the cognitive appraisal of CBT does not always do.

And such ANS-targeted practices transform our consciousness, giving us different ways of being and knowing beyond rationality. These different ways of being and knowing can sometimes give us the sense of connecting with the sacred or the divine. So they’re not necessarily ‘lower’ or more ‘bestial’ than conscious rationality, as philosophers have sometimes insisted. They are important parts of our psyche, which philosophy often leaves out.

ANS-targeted practices

What sorts of practices work directly on our ANS system?

Certain forms of meditation, like Transcendental Meditation or mindfulness, work not with our conscious rationality or logic, but instead work on our ANS to alter our consciousness and our emotions. That can be tremendously healing, as the evidence from 40 years of research into meditation shows. The repeated practice of meditation alters our baseline emotional state and our automatic reaction to potentially stressful stimuli. It alters our heart rate, our immune system, our breathing – and that all feeds into our thinking style, making us less likely to make anxious or depressed appraisals of events.

Likewise, we can consciously engage with the arts as a form of healing and emotional release. That’s precisely why dance is so important to human beings – it gives us a form of emotional catharsis that is more direct, more primary and non-cognitive than conscious rational deliberation. Philosophers (not traditionally the greatest dancers) have singularly failed to appreciate the power of dance to heal us, beyond a few brief statements in Plato or Rousseau.

J.M.W. Turner
We don’t calmly process Turner’s Snow-Storm, we’re astonished by it

The emotional impact of the beauty of nature and art cannot be adequately explained by the Stoic or Socratic account of the emotions – this is why Nussbaum’s attempts at aesthetics are so tepid. As Burke understood, the sublime and the beautiful operate not on our reason, but on our nerves, our stomach, our guts. Burke wrote: ‘In every one of its modifications the sense of the sublime has its nervous basis, due to changes which are in some degree painful, and an analogous nervous basis may be discovered for the sense of the beautiful.’We don’t calmly and rationally process sublime scenes. On the contrary, we’re astonished by them – they overwhelm us, defy our ability to process them.

DH Lawrence and other Dionysiacs would also say, quite rightly, that sex is a powerful form of emotional catharsis, one unfairly denigrated by Stoics as ‘a rubbing together of bellies’ in Marcus Aurelius’ unhappy phrase. Erotic love gives us a form of knowing deeper and more visceral than conscious rationality. Our bodies, our ANS systems, intertwine. That can also be very healing.

And collective religious experiences are also a way of consciously manipulating and altering the Autonomic Nervous System. The music, the incense, the dancing, the singing, the prayer, the wine, the invocation of a Higher Power – all this by-passes our rationality and works directly on our primary emotions. And that can be tremendously healing and transformative. Of all philosophers, William James understood best how healing the altered states of consciousness attained through stimulation of the ANS could be. His classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, challenges the Stoic idea that healing only comes about through conscious reasoning. Sometimes people are healed and released from their old emotional habits through profound visceral or trance experiences.

Of course, we may get a temporary healing or release through a night of passion, or dancing, or religious ecstasy, or ayahuasca. Still, I think the Stoics were right that if this temporary release is going to become permanent transformation, it also needs to involve our conscious rationality. A spiritual life that is all about feelings and not at all about rational beliefs will not have very deep roots. Nor would a spiritual life that is entirely based on rational beliefs and not at all on bodily feelings. There needs to be a connection between the mind and the heart, in popular parlance.

It would be unfair to say Stoic therapy is entirely rational and that it misses out completely the non-cognitive and the non-rational aspects of emotions. A defender of Stoicism would point to the role of visualization meditations in their therapy, and their sense of awe in nature – both of which are rational but also non-rational / visceral. Certainly, Pythagoras and his follower Plato understood the power of music, dance, poetry and incantation to transform and heal our emotions.

sacred_heart_byzantineBut in general, Greek philosophy is rather suspicious of non-rational or Dionysiac approaches to the emotions. I think Christianity has a greater sense of the healing and transformative power of music, architecture, poetry, liturgy, dance and trance states (although of course it steered well clear of any drugs besides incense and wine). Judeo-Christianity speaks not just of reason or logic, but of knowing God through the heart or even the bowels – we are often told in the New Testament that Jesus reacts to suffering in his splagchnon, his bowels. How different to a Stoic, who would dismiss such visceral reactions as ‘just disturbances of the body’.

At its best, I think, Christianity can sometimes combine the rational ethical wisdom of Stoicism with the more non-rational, sublime or Numinous emotional experiences we have discussed. Though, I’m sure like a lot of you, I find my reason and my heart aren’t always in agreement.