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Platonism

Technologies for unselfing our Selfie culture

A lot of modern technology, particularly social media, is a technology for selfing. This is why we’re so addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc (well, I am anyway). They’re technologies for Selfing. Every post and tweet, we’re making another little carving in the epic construction of our Public Self, then we wait to see how many likes we get.

Great global crises are merely means to the mini-rush of a Like or a Retweet. Hey, that tweet I did about the NHS got five retweets. That carefully-constructed In Memoriam tweet for Robin Williams was a smash. The petition I shared about the Yazidis or whatever got 18 Shares. That video of me pouring ice over myself for Ebola-sufferers got 87 Likes!

All of us, staring at our phones on the Tube, we’re really staring at little pocket mirrors. Does the Public like me? Does it like me when I do this?  How about this? We’re slaves to the Public, just as Plato predicted we would become in liberal democracy. We twist, turn and contort ourselves to win the approval of the thousand-eyed God.

Is there another way? Plato thought that perhaps that we can go beyond the sucking black-hole of the ego, beyond the endless shadow-play of our ego-projections, and turn towards the shining reality of Truth, Beauty & Goodness. Iris Murdoch, the Platonist philosopher and novelist, wrote about this. She called it ‘techniques of unselfing’. The opposite of Selfies, in other words.

Murdoch writes in The Sovereignty of the Good:

The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine – in order to operate it needs sources of energy, and is predisposed to certain patterns of activity. One of its main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain….

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world. Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters, then anything which alters our consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.

The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.

In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.

When we move from beauty in nature to beauty in art we are already i a more difficult region. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, is actually self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of great art can have its effect. Art…affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent.

As this excellent essay by two Iranian scholars informs me, we see this process of unselfing taking place at key moments in Murdoch’s novels. In The Bell, for example, Dora is suddenly unselfed in front of a painting in the National Gallery:

220px-TheBellShe marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the pictures] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect…Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless…the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary, trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. when the world had seemed to be subjective, it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all….

Another great technology for unselfing is listening to other people. Actually listening to them. Attending to them. Not turning them into extras in your ego-fantasy. Becoming alive to their independent reality. Their themness. Novels, I guess, are trying to teach us how to do this, how to be empathetic listeners, how to wake up. Part of becoming an adult, for example, involves waking up to the independent reality of your parents, not just as sources of love, approval and money, but as beings, with feelings, frailties, needs.

Contemplation and prayer is another great technology for unselfing. Check out the Bishop of London talking about it, in very Platonic terms (this is from his brilliant collection of sermons and talks, tree of knowledge, tree of life):

DSC_6273All human beings emerge from an experience of oneness with the source of life, but very early on we set to work subconsciously building a shell for protection and a surface self so that we can negotiate with the world around us. Gradually the experience of oneness with the well-spring of life is lost, a crust forms over our deepest self (a crust of unawareness often described in terms of blindness) and we come to operate more and more from what we have constructed, from the shell, the false self…The effect of this is, in the end, exhaustion and a sense of absence, which we try to full with hectic over-activity.

Spiritual growth at a certain point in life demands a reversal and a progressive diminution of the egotistical false self so that our true selves may be liberated and flourish…The surface self is a barrier between our selves and God: a barrier which in the end prevents growth and interrupts the healthy and energizing exchange of love which is intended to pass between the heart of our being and the heart of God.

Certainly the pain involved in breaking through the crust, which has been so many years in the making, and the peril of journeying to the centre through the zone of the hidden drives and complexes which lies beneath the crust, this pain and peril is inescapable: but beyond lies the promise.

Contemplation, he says, is a guide and a resource on this journey:

I have found that the simple way of prayer taught by John Main, one of the spiritual explorers of our own generation, very helpful in widening the breach [in the crust of the false self]. A period morning and evening in simple contemplation. I was tired of continually instructing God in his duties. Gradually I can see more light which does not come from my own generator but is the uncreated light…Truly, this is a door into a new way of being in the world.

Isn’t that awesome? I’ve also been practicing Main’s prayer-technique for the last three months or so. It’s very similar to Transcendental Meditation – you say a mantra in your mind, and use that to settle your restless consciousness, until it descends to a deeper consciousness, in which you can sometimes rest for a while. It feels great, so it’s not a hassle to do it, you want to do it – your soul is drawn to it, like metal towards a magnet. And maybe it slowly transforms us by taking us beyond the restless grasping ego (too soon to say in my case!)

Main learned the technique from a Hindu guru, Swami Satyananda, though similar techniques have existed in Christianity for centuries (though the Church has often been suspicious of them, alas). You can learn the technique for free, and practice it with others, in any of the many Christian contemplation centres around the UK.

The revival of humanisms

I want to explore the idea of Greek philosophy as a meeting-point between various humanisms, including Christian humanism, atheist or agnostic humanism, Islamic humanism and Jewish humanism.

These days, I would describe myself as a Christian humanist. I mean ‘humanist’ in the Renaissance sense – someone who loves and wants to revive ancient philosophy and culture. And I mean ‘Christian humanist’ in the sense of believing that Christianity complements and even completes Greek philosophy.

Plato, Seneca and Aristotle given homage in a medieval manuscript

For many Medieval and Renaissance Christians, as well as for some Jewish and Islamic philosophers, the great Greek and Roman philosophers were prophets or saints. Their profound insights into human nature and the universe helped to lead people out of suffering, like Virgil leading Dante out of Hell in the Divine Comedy.

The revelation of Greek philosophy is this: much of our suffering comes from our thoughts, beliefs and values. We construct our own prisons. We can liberate ourselves from these prisons by learning to examine our souls and to be wiser in our thinking. We can use our reason to shine a light onto our unconscious habits, and to create new, wiser habits. We can learn to take care of our souls, to be the doctors to ourselves.

We cause ourselves suffering by caring for the wrong things, by putting our trust in the wrong things, by worshipping false gods (as Plato puts it), and building our houses on sand (as Jesus put it). We can find a deeper fulfillment by looking within, by cultivating an inner garden of consciousness and reason, and also by cultivating caring and ethical relationships with other people.

Both atheist / agnostic and theist Greek philosophers would agree with what I’ve written above. But they disagreed in their definition of ‘flourishing’, and on the question of where reason comes from. Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Pythagoras and the Stoics thought consciousness comes from God, while Epicurus thought it was a cosmic fluke. I was always more on the theistic side of Greek philosophy. I thought it more likely that our consciousness is God-given, that it’s a fragment of God (or the Logos). I also believed, rather more speculatively, that this Logos is providential, guiding us towards an end or telos.

Why ‘Christian’ humanism?

I’ve become a Christian humanist this year for two reasons. Firstly, I believe in grace. I’ve moved from believing in the Stoic Logos, which is a rather abstract and chilly cosmic intelligence which doesn’t particularly care about individual cases, to believing in a God who loves us as individuals and who occasionally intervenes in our life, lifts us up and heals us through grace.

It was one such experience of grace, back in 2001, which helped me recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and which led me to Greek philosophy. I’ve had some more experiences like that this year. I don’t think this makes me in any way special – such experiences are in fact fairly common among humans, we’re just embarrassed to speak about them in our materialist culture.

Why would I interpret these experiences in a Christian framework? Partly because this year I experienced them in a Christian context, and partly because the New Testament gives a better account of such experiences when talking about the healing power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s love. Greek philosophers don’t really talk about God’s love healing us (although the playwright Sophocles does). In Greek philosophy, God is an abstract concept you reach through rational dialectic. In Judeo-Christianity, God is a Being with whom you can have a loving relationship. I believe the latter is true.

Feeding our need for community

The second reason I became a Christian is that I was hungry for spiritual community. I’ve been a total individualist all my adult life – a freelance journalist, usually single, socially anxious, bit of a hermit. I am the archetypal modern liberal, suspicious of all communities and organisations, yet longing to find one I can call home. I agree with Jean Vanier that loneliness is one of the great sicknesses of our liberal culture.

I am all for trying to develop ethical communities for non-believers where, in the words of Daniel Dennett, ‘people who are not otherwise loved can be taken in and their lives can be made important’. I would love philosophy clubs to be such places, as well as organisations like the School of Life, the Sunday Assembly, Action for Happiness clubs. I’ve worked with all these organisations and think they’re on to something important. But there’s a way to go yet, in terms of creating spaces where people can bring all of themselves – their baggage, their wounds, their vulnerability – and feel ministered to.

This year, I’ve been exploring Christian community. I guess I started my explorations at the end of last year, when I was dating a lovely girl, and we went to stay at a cottage in Wales with some other friends of hers. They all turned out to be Christians, in fact one of them was a vicar. This initially freaked me out (trapped in a cottage with Christians! aaargh!) but actually I was really impressed by their commitment to one another, by their sincerity and their humour. They were human beings, not Bible-bashing zombies. They listened to each other, cared for one another, allowed each other to be fallible human beings.

The power of small groups

The vicar at that cottage invited me on the Alpha course, which I did at the beginning of this year. I really enjoyed it, partly because of the power of small groups – it’s a wonderful experience to turn up, once a week, with the same group of people, to talk, listen and support each other. We still meet, every other Tuesday evening. Roughly half of us are non-Christian. Humanist groups and philosophy groups have also drawn on this power of small groups in the past and are doing so again. For example, Richard Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness, was inspired by attending a Quaker small group for a year or so, and is now launching an Alpha-style course for humanists (more on that when I get the details).

Of course, the Alpha course has some slightly more, er, supernatural aspects, like asking the Holy Spirit to come in to you. There’s also an emphasis on praying for each other. I personally think this is a beautiful practice. Think of prayer as wishing each other well, deeply. Christians pray, sometimes, by putting a hand on each other’s shoulders. I think touch is important. These days, we hear ‘touch’ and because we’re liberals we think ‘Ugh! Violation of privacy!‘ But we need touch. We’re primates. We have a touch-deficit in our lives. Touch can be as simple as shaking each other’s hands and giving each other the ‘sign of peace’. Touch is healing.

Christian community also puts music at the centre. Initially, I found the contemporary worship very off-putting. I felt it was a desecration of the religion of rock & roll. How dare they play rock music – they’re Christians, the epitome of Uncool. Even worse, some of the Christians there would put their hands in the air and dance. I would look at them, as Michal looked down at David, and think, you poor, poor people.

Michal (top right) looking down on David in contempt as he dances in front of the Ark

It is absolutely fine to put your hands in the air and dance at a club or music festival. It’s fine to raise your hands in a diamond-gesture to worship Jay-Z; fine to raise your hands in worship of Manchester City or Blackpool FC; fine to raise your hands to worship your country at a football match (less cool at a a nationalist rally). But if you raise your hands to worship God then, my friend, you are a nutter.

Well…I still think most Christian rock is pretty cheesy. But some of it is OK, and a handful of songs I actually like, and I’m OK with people raising their hands to worship God. I like worshipping God with other people, through music. No, actually, I love it. It’s a really powerful, wonderful experience, hearing a hundred or a thousand people lifting up their voices around you, affirming your deepest beliefs. Again, humanist groups do this too – I occasionally play the drums at the Sunday Assembly, and sometimes people even raise their hands to the music. Charismatic atheists!

Humanism is also civic, outward-looking, engaged with society. I admire the social work which some of my Christian friends do, in an effort to follow the example of Christ. Some of them have gone off to live in deprived estates, some of them left lucrative careers to set up charities, some of them went to live with mentally disabled people, some of them turned their homes into refuges for addicts.

And I admire the leadership of the Christian community I’ve been engaged with – Nicky and Pippa Gumbel. I admire their humility, the fact they run a huge global movement but haven’t been seduced by money, power or fame. They still ride around on their bicycles and live in the vicarage. Thousands of people come to their church, yet they know the name of all the people in my Alpha group, and care about us. Their community is not perfect by any means, but it’s more nurturing and less corrupted by money or power than most philosophical / self-help communities I’ve encountered. The good thing about belonging to a very old and established church like the C of E is it’s bigger than you and your ego. Newer churches or self-help movements can easily become vehicles for their leaders’ egos.

James Randi, left, is good at ministering to the humanist community.

It is not at all easy to create a community where people feel loved. It’s hard to care about other people, because people are annoying and needy. So we keep other people at arms’ length. I remember a famous philosopher saying of someone ‘oh, they’re very needy’. In Greek philosophy and liberal humanism, neediness is weakness and autonomy is strength. Christian communities, by contrast, are OK with people’s neediness. Christian priests are trained to minister to that need. Does humanism have servants, people who are willing to give their lives to minister to other people and to put them before their own egos? I think James Randi is close – he ministers to the Skeptic community, writing postcards to Skeptics around the world, keeping in touch, giving out hugs at The Amazing Meeting.

I have friends trying to cultivate caring communities for atheists and I’m all for that, because humans need community, and as humanists, we share a common tradition in Greek philosophy. Personally, I would also like to see the revival of the Church of England, and the revival of the Christian humanist tradition within the Church. I would like to see the revival of all humanisms, and of friendship between them.