Tag Archives: beyond good and evil

One Thing

Kierkegaard: “The [one] who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.”

Down through the history of philosophy in the West, metaphysical realists have believed in “the Good,” in a deep foundation or high ideal on which all our values are oriented. The great Plato even made it the sun-center of his thought system, explaining our appreciation of goodness in the realm of time as the intuition of an eternal or timeless Form reflected to varying degrees in the world around us. Later on, the Church father Augustine interpreted this and other forms of perfection as archetypes in the mind of God, the essential patterns on which Creation was originally fashioned and from which it eventually fell, under the spell of sin.

In the high Middle Ages, philosophers began to challenge this idea of transcendental Forms (archetypes, models, divine ideas) having a separate existence in a realm apart from their incarnations in time. Nominalism insisted that these so-called Forms are only categories in our minds, names we use to organize and make sense of reality – whatever that is. This was the bridge in Western philosophy that gave support to even more radical views later on, in the set of assumptions called postmodernism: (1) all we have is perspective, (2) meaning is constructed, and (3) there are no absolutes.

Kierkegaard was in this new current of thought, so why does he still refer to “the Good” as if it is something out there that we might desire, whether for the sake of a reward or not? Does the Good exist in some other realm, apart from this web of relativity we call our world? If there were no human beings, would there still be the Good? A little farther into the nineteenth century Nietzsche would insist on our evolutionary need to go “beyond good and evil” – beyond tribal morality, the dis/obedient ego, and the mythological god who holds it all in place – for the sake of a higher humanity (his Ubermensch or higher self). Is Kierkegaard trying to prevent what Nietzsche later celebrated?

It may sound as if he is saying, “Okay, we’re making it all up – except this one thing, the Good.” Like the vestige of the mythological god who still lurks behind the screen for many post-theists today, perhaps the Good is Kierkegaard’s attempt to fix in place just one thing that can serve as the immovable center of this (only) apparent chaos. At least there’s this, we can say. This is absolute and for certain, whatever else may be called into doubt.

But what if “the Good” is more internal than external, more about the intention in what we do than something we look for and find out there in the world? What if it’s about focus, passion and devotion – what you regard in all seriousness as the “one thing” that matters most. This is what Tillich means by “ultimate concern.” Its separate existence, either outside you in the world or in a metaphysical realm apart from this one, is merely secondary. Maybe “the Good” is not what we will but the way we will, a quality of intention rather than a quantifiable something out there.

Human beings make meaning, we don’t find it – unless we come across what someone else has created already. Once upon a time we composed a myth that conceived of existence itself as the creation of a god who made everything before we got here. So we’re coming across what someone else has created already, all the time, and its meaning is inherent because god put it there. But once we realize that the mythological god is a literary and psychological device in our own effort at meaning-making, a new kind of responsibility befalls us.

In the film City Slickers, the character Mitch is a man who has reached the point at midlife where meaning and purpose have drained from his world. In the spirit of adventure – and as a kind of desperate measure to get out of his boring life routine – he and his friends sign up for a cattle-drive across the western United States. In a critical scene Mitch is sitting with an old cowhand named Curly, whose way in the world is tough and crass, and he asks him the question that’s been burning in his soul: “What’s the meaning of life?” Curly pauses, looks deep in his eyes and says to Mitch, “One thing.”

For a while thereafter, Mitch is perplexed over what that “one thing” might be. Is it a woman? A successful career? Religion? When Norman, a calf that Mitch delivers under Curly’s supervision, is in danger of drowning in a fast-moving stream, Mitch jumps in at the risk of his own life and saves the animal. In that moment he discovers the “one thing” as the object of his unconditional love and personal sacrifice. After the adventure he goes back to his life with renewed intention, embracing in gratitude and devotion what had earlier felt only heavy and pointless.

This is what I think Kierkegaard means by “the Good.” It’s not out there for us to find. Instead it’s the degree of focus, passion and investment with which we live our lives. Living “on purpose” means that we are living awake, that we are not simply reacting to our upbringing or circumstances but rather intentionally creating the lives we really want.

There is a caveat. Our lives will be truly meaning-full when we live not for the sake of gaining a reward (something afterwards or on the side) but for the fulfillment that is intrinsic to the act of creation itself. As creators of value, human beings find their deepest spiritual satisfaction in translating the present mystery of reality into worlds of significance, purpose, beauty and love. Not for what we get out of it, but for the exhilaration and authentic life we experience as we get deeper into it.

It’s not about me, and it’s not about you. But it can’t happen without us, so let’s step into it with both eyes open.


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Waiting Around

Nietzsche: “In every corner of the earth there are people waiting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting but even less that they are waiting in vain. Sometimes the awakening call, that chance event which gives ‘permission’ to act, comes but too late – when the best part of youth and the strength to act has already been used up in sitting still; and how many a man has discovered to his horror when he ‘rose up’ that his limbs had gone to sleep and his spirit was already too heavy!”

It may be that culture invented philosophy in order to catch the impulse of change and involve it – or tangle it up – in a web of commentary and subtle qualifications, to the point where it is rendered numb and disoriented. Our species is top-heavy, with this big brain wobbling atop a spindle of delicate bones. We often sense and feel the galvanic force of evolution surging out to our working muscles, but then rein it back to the counter for more deliberation. Of course, we don’t want to act prematurely or thoughtlessly or recklessly, or “merely” on the prick of inspiration alone – so we fiddle and futz, weigh the benefits against the risks, and end up throwing it back into committee.

Let’s face it, change is not always welcome. In fact, we embody a survival intelligence that has changed very slowly over the course of evolutionary history. It (Id was Freud’s term) operates according to a “logic” which says, “I’m still alive, so something is working. Let’s hold on and see what happens next. [Time passes] Ah, still here. Keep up the good work.”

End-time Christianity is perhaps the poster child of those who wait. In its early days, the cultural atmosphere was such that things really did seem about to end – at least for those of the dispossessed underclasses, such as the peasants and day-workers initially attracted to Jesus’ message of debt forgiveness and liberation. His gospel of freedom was quickly taken up into pre-existing apocalyptic eschatologies (views of the finale to “this present evil age”) and became something very different from what he probably intended.

The Fourth Gospel (John) was one of the last New Testament attempts to redirect this preoccupation with the end. But no matter how profound and provocative its language was – and obviously still is – the effort to bring Christians back to the present task of living out the spirit of Jesus was pushed to the side and tabled. Cultivation of a more mystical (deeply this-worldly) spirituality lacked attraction for a generation whose existence in the world was toilsome and perilous. Escape – or deliverance by intervention of a savior – was seen as the only way out. And so Christianity underwent an identity change of the first order: from an underground conspiracy for world change, to an orthodox membership club waiting on heaven.

Lately I’ve been feeling the urgency of our present cultural situation, especially as it concerns the spiritual direction of humanity and the decreasing relevance of religion. In their attempts to stop the slide and revitalize our churches, some leaders are advocating a “back to basics” reform or a return to first-century Christianity. Maybe it’s all the theological complications and moral compromises we’ve made along the way; let’s clear the table and get refocused on the fundamentals of our faith. What this really means is a further tightening of the bolt that binds together metaphysical realism, mythological literalism, biblical inerrancy, and infallible authority – that is to say, more of what has gotten us here.

As I see it, organized religion (all religions) is only a stage along the path of our spiritual evolution as a species. It occupies the same tier of human development as ego, tribe, morality and the mythological god. It’s not bad, and I don’t believe it is our destiny to one day live as fully enlightened beings without egos and the rest. These are necessary components of the longer trajectory and larger picture of what we are and where we’re going. But they are relative, not absolutes, and the next phase of our evolution requires that we leap from this platform and into the farther reaches of our human nature.

But the leap doesn’t project us into a new age without religion. The platform provides context, support, orientation and the resources of our various wisdom traditions that can aid us in leaping. A Christian leaps from a Christian platform, a Buddhist from a Buddhist platform, a Muslim from an Islamic platform, each using the leverage and guidance of their distinct traditions to engage the mystery and live more meaningfully in the world. Leaping out, we transcend our ego, let go of god, and learn to live beyond good and evil.

Those preparing to leap should expect a pull-back from the tribe. “What are you doing?! We’re supposed to stay here and wait! How can you just turn your back on us like this?” Such is the last task of ego – to take leave of your attachments, turn toward the mystery, and open your arms to fly.

The waiting is over.


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Frontier of the Future

Nietzsche: “Actual philosophers are commanders and law-givers: they say ‘thus it shall be!’, it is they who determine the Wherefore and Whither of humankind, and they possess for this task the preliminary work of all the philosophical laborers, of all those who have subdued the past – they reach for the future with creative hand, and everything that is or has been becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is – will to power. Are there such philosophers today? Have there been such philosophers? Must there not be such philosophers?

I’ve already commented on Nietzsche’s self-appointed role as advocate of the body and its animal drives. He felt that morality and “the herd conscience” effectively block our path to a higher human actualization by condemning, censuring and repressing the life impulses that have served our evolution for millions of years. What should rather happen, as he saw it, is that these drives are channeled and guided to the fulfillment of human nature, not extinguished (which isn’t possible anyway) or domesticated (which only makes them docile, weak and skittish).

The model of self that I’ve been working with identifies three centers of experience connecting us to three distinct aspects or dimensions of reality. Physical reality is experienced by the body which has both an inward orientation (to an internal state) and an outward orientation (to the sensory environment). Social reality is experienced by the ego, and it too has an inward orientation (me-identity) and an outward orientation (other-object). Spiritual reality is experienced by the soul, also with an inward orientation (to the ground of being) and an outward orientation (to the unity of existence).

Again, we don’t have a body, ego, and soul; we are these. Our “real self” is not a metaphysical and immortal subject underneath or above them, but is rather their evolving relationships and dynamic interplay over the course of our lifetime.

Prior to the construction of ego, it seems reasonable to suppose that an individual’s experience of reality is a two-way flow: down through the internal state of the body and into the soul’s ground, and also out through the sensory pathways of the body and into the universal whole. As ego becomes more defined and established as the center of our personality, this spontaneous flow of experience is interrupted by commentary, judgment and belief – in short, by meaning-making.

Ego isn’t performing this work alone, however, but is supported, instructed and supervised by the tribe. The individual’s need for belonging (to fit in) and significance (to stand out) is manipulated by the tribe to ensure moral compliance – to make the individual into “one of us” who thinks and behaves according to the rules.

Stepping back a bit from this model of self, we begin to see the thresholds and potential conflicts of development. As our life energy gets generated in our cells and organs, the animal intelligence of instinct coordinates the urgencies, reflexes and drives that keep us alive. As a member of the tribe, however, you cannot be allowed to gratify every impulse, so the rules and expectations are gradually instructed into you (internalized) as the moral intelligence of conscience.

We might hope that the deeper life energy of the body would move freely along these channels of morality, connecting us to each other in healthy and creative ways, but this isn’t the norm – at least as Nietzsche saw it in his day. Instead, our impulses get blamed and repressed. Pushed back and driven underground by the “herd conscience,” this animal instinct doesn’t simply dissipate or timidly obey. It will break out eventually, and when it does, the tribe is likely to push even harder and pinch the channels even tighter. For Nietzsche, this is where the human evolutionary journey meets its tragic end: with everyone well-behaved but energetically constipated, stuck on the wheel of chronic frustration and neurosis, dying before we even had the chance to really live.

What ought to happen – and if that sounds too much like a moral “ought,” then what needs to happen – is that the individual lets go of morality and proceeds to live “beyond good and evil,” on the far side of obedient conformity to the herd. This free range of the higher life is where Nietzsche’s “philosophers” live – or will live one day. As the “passionate pursuit of wisdom,” philosophy for Nietzsche isn’t about symbolic logic and abstract thinking. Wisdom is the spiritual intelligence of the soul. It involves an understanding of one’s place in the greater whole, orienting by the big picture and the long view. Wisdom is not about how smart we are, but whether we have a large enough vision and sufficient courage to live creatively into this moment.

When the social system of tribal morality, the personal ego and the mythological god can be transcended, the future of humanity will begin. The webs of meaning that we have collectively and individually constructed must either support this creative transformation or be torn down. If it served us for a while, giving us security and a sense of purpose, we have now reached the point where the box is too small, the cage too limiting.

It is time to cut the lock and push open the door. Can we trust ourselves?


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What Would Nietzsche Do?

Nietzsche: “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”

Given that Nietzsche titled his book Beyond Good and Evil, we can assume a higher importance in his mind for what he connects to this phrase. But … love? Really? Nietzsche? Didn’t he espouse the obliteration of all values, despise the Jews and inspire Hitler’s holocaust campaign against humanity?

Surprising answer to all three parts: No. In fact, it was his sister who took charge of his estate and collected his papers after he died; she began spinning his reputation in a direction that agreed with her husband’s antisemitism. (Nietzsche actually condemns it in different published works.)

“Good and evil” in Nietzsche’s thought refers to morality. These are not things in the universe, but values ascribed or attached to things – or rather, to the actions of things (specifically people). While metaphysical realism holds the separate and absolute existence of good and evil (personified in gods and devils), a thorough-going constructivism regards them as values (not entities or supernatural forces) that humans project onto reality. It’s an important part of “world-building” whereby we construct a secure and meaningful habitation in which to live.

In order to get along together, we early on assigned value to certain kinds of social behavior – proper and deviant, right and wrong – and then invented superhuman realities (“good” and “evil”) to anchor them down with authority. Morality, then, is about how human behavior conforms to the standards of right and wrong, as these are customized in a given society (recall that mores are customs).

There’s no indication in Nietzsche’s writings that he preferred social chaos to civil order. His aspiration was for a humanity not tethered to moral standards of good and evil. For the rest of us tribe-bound, people-pleasing and self-interested egos, all this talk of “overcoming morality,” the “death of God,”  and living “beyond good and evil” sounds a lot like mustering for a planetary free-for-all. Did he really believe that living without values would be a good thing? Therein lies the paradox.

No, it would not be “good,” for that just pulls us back into the problem. And what’s the problem? That we can’t live creatively and spontaneously so long as we are measuring our actions against the conventional standards of our tribe (however large). Wanting to do “good” is already qualifying human freedom by appealing (read: submitting) to the judgment of someone else – be it the social majority, a dictator, or the mythological god.

Imagine living with such present mindfulness, with such profound awareness of what’s really going on right now, and fully grounded in the “one life” of which you are a part, that your action flows spontaneously and unselfconsciously to the critical point of creative transformation. Thinking as the universe, you know immediately what is needed in the moment and, without pausing to consider what it will cost you or how you could benefit personally from the outcome, you are like a catalyst of transforming change – and simply make it happen. Who did that? Was it an ego, an extension of the tribe or an agent of another will?

No, it wasn’t an “I” (ego). It was The One – Life itself, the creative will that moves the evolutionary process. You weren’t “commanded,” taken over by a higher power or alien force. You (but not ego you) are the will-to-power, the moving energy of creative change. Your actions cannot be validated or disqualified by any standard of right and wrong, for you are a breaking wave of energy on the ocean of reality. You are, in that very moment, beyond good and evil.

This is love, according to Nietzsche the proto-Nazi nihilist. Ah, and I suppose that’s the point. All along we’ve been judging his vision by how it would work out for the rest of us. Not very well – at least, not as long as we’re hunkering down (or trapped and blinded) in the moral kingdom of good and evil.

Love, for Nietzsche, is not an affection, a feeling, an attachment or even a passion. It is doing the creative thing, not because it has to be done – it’s not an obligation, either –  but because this is the moment. If we are alive, we must live now.

Step into the current and see where it takes you.


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