Happiness: Objectivity, Subjectivity, Compassion

helping another

Happiness and unhappiness come from ‘inside’

Like most people, I’ve felt angry, frustrated, and helpless at times – even hopeless – but such negative states of mind are rare at this point in my life. I had hoped to grow out of them altogether, but that was ego thinking. In fact they seem to be right around the corner, so  this will be a bit of self-examination and reflection about happiness and unhappiness – what they entail, and whether we have any control over them.

This post is a personal reflection, different from most of my essays. I generally study, analyze and make critical judgments about macroeconomic, political and societal trends, and their interconnections. Thousands – maybe millions – of people do the same thing on various websites. If my ideas differ, I hope it’s in the degree to which I try to be philosophical, rather than opinionated, or self-promoting, or ‘expressing-myself-because-I-have-as-much-right-as-anyone-else’, or seeking to maximize ‘eyes on my site’ to make money, which is obvious with many blogs and the companies that ‘host’ them.

Over the years, with help from personal therapy,  friends in the profession,  and lots of study and teaching in comparative religions and history of philosophy, I’m convinced that most of our moods don’t result from what’s going on around us in the moment, but what’s inside, which has been there a long time – our habitual way of processing what’s happening  outside. Moreover, the negative states usually come from lack of self-awareness, and a failure to understand and be objective, about ourselves and about what is ‘bothering us’.

I’m lucky to have been given this ‘revelation’, or principle; and when it seems appropriate, I try to share it with others. There are other helpful corollaries to this principle I’ll come back to, but I believe this is the  overarching rule of mental health and happiness (and their opposites). I’ve tried to live by it, and what follows from it. Certainly these ideas weren’t discovered recently – nor in my lifetime. Like most important truths, they’ve been around ‘from the beginning’.

Buddhist thought, for example, teaches that unhappiness results from our tendency to think from ego, rather than think objectively about  ourselves. Suppose I were to stumble into a rabbit hole in the field, and break an ankle. It’s very painful of course; that’s natural. It’s natural too, for anyone in this situation to ‘own‘ the pain, and think of it as hers. I might start yelling “Ow! Eeow! My leg hurts; it’s killing me! I can’t stop it! Sh*t! Somebody help me! It hurts so bad! Oh no! Please … ! Oh, Oww…!” What I’m doing is adding needless suffering – feelings of helplessness, frustration, confusion, denial, anger, etc. – to the pain which is there. Imagine instead trying to practice this kind of conversation with ourselves:

That ankle’s probably broken. Feels like it. Have to be careful not to injure it more by walking on it. Need something for support. Maybe I can hobble back to the house and get help. Oh, and next week’s meeting. I forgot. Have to put that off  a while. This is going to take time. First, need to do something about the pain. Can’t say what’s involved in fixing the ankle. It’ll get better – shouldn’t expect miracles at my age – enough to keep going though. Lucky there’s a emergency room in town.”

In other words, it’s possible to think and talk to ourselves about the situation in the same way we might expect a doctor or a sensible friend to think and talk to us about it. You might say, ‘Sure, but it’s easy for the doctor to be  objective; it’s not her pain’. That’s true, but it isn’t ‘my pain,’ or ‘your  pain’ either, if we develop a new view of ‘reality’. Reality is not what we’ve habitually come to identify with – the world interpreted through the senses – the typical view that Buddhists and Hindhus might call illusory. This thinking isn’t an effort to escape the world, however. It only requires a different orientation, and learning other habits of thought. That isn’t easy, or natural.

Other thoughts about mental health I found useful 

An Argentine friend, Hector Sabelli, MD, and his wife Linnea, used to host discussion groups in their Chicago home. Hector (now deceased) was a philosopher, and a psychiatrist , associated with Rush Medical Group in Chicago. He  liked contradictions and creative opposition wherever he saw them. Unlike mainstream philosophers, he viewed the whole universe, not as a basically stable whole (centered on some unchanging ultimate reality), but  as change itself – the ever-changing interplay of opposites – that he called the Union of Opposites, after  the manner of the Greek Herakleitos, and the Chinese Taoists.

In psychotherapy, Hector’s goal was to balance opposing forces in a patient’s life, especially the biological, social and psychic (or inner). He advocated a more humane approach to minds and health, that would not reduce them to ‘facts’ of ‘hard science’ about chemicals, cell structures and exact measurements. Instead, he appealed to more variable ‘laws’ about social relations, personal attitudes, historical changes, cultural differences, etc – the work of so-called ‘soft sciences’. He often said the best way to understand life, as well as humans, would be as a physician – not a physicist. A physician’s perspective should emphasize taking every  patient as a whole, including her uniqueness. He quipped that psychiatrists should try to expand minds, not be “shrinks”.

Jonathan Lear, at U. Chicago, offered other insights, during his classes in the ‘Philosophy of Freud’. Lear is a psychoanalyst,  philosopher,  publisher in the Oxford Aristotelian Society, and writer of books about happiness. He’s one of the handful of really great teachers I’ve been lucky to know. I think the best teachers have a deserved reputation for their professional excellence; but in addition, I find they are open, modest, approachable, and genuinely concerned for their students’ benefit. Lesser teachers seem more concerned with their status than with their students’ development. But I don’t suggest teachers should be ‘buddies’ to students, or try to win ‘Rate My Teacher’ polls. That’s the marketing approach to education.

Personal therapy at several difficult times added to my beliefs about happiness, especially with Richard – a very smart and effective talk therapist about my age, with a PhD in psychology. He showed how most patients try to manipulate therapists, to avoid seeing and facing themselves clearly. I started many discussions, which were generally pointless diversions. Richard knew it, and never lost track of the business at hand.

I’m not a mental health professional, but I’m comfortable repeating and commenting on what I learned about happiness, and it’s requisites; and to reflect on what I failed to learn well enough. As said above, it involves knowing ourselves objectively, so we can let go of a false sense of who we are. It would be ideal if we could forget ourselves, and live directly, without feeling compelled either to belittle or aggrandize ourselves. Paradoxically, that self-forgetting requires (as I said above) paying really close attention to ourselves, at times, so we can understand, and let go of, beliefs, recipes and behaviors that may have worked for us as young people, but hamper us as adults. And in the process, we may also have to let go of what our  parents taught us (or we think they taught us), if it no longer makes sense.

Typically, the mental and behavioral ‘coping mechanisms’ we learned early in life rest on patterns of associations – connections between painful feelings (guilt, shame, worthlessness, fear, loneliness, insecurity, self-hating, etc.) and some deeply moving words or actions of others – a parent or important loved one. Often the latter are forgotten, but their consequences remain. At the time, we interpreted these experiences (whether or not correctly) to imply we were bad, evil, unlovable, not up to par, etc.

No doubt the lists of particular causes and effects may differ, but the outcomes are similar, it seems to me. Similar enough, at least, that an experienced therapist will have seen the pattern many times, and can hold a mirror up to us, until we begin to recognize and understand what we internalized. Psychoanalytic traditions have given very helpful insights about these ‘associations’. And no, it’s not all about sex.

The counselor doesn’t need to be smarter than we, nor must she be able to give us ‘good advice’ or solutions to our problems, like “Stop taking on more work than you can handle”. Clients often expect advice – even demand it. But that’s really a distraction, like asking what time it is, or looking anxiously towards the door, which we use to divert our attention from ourselves and the honest work to be done.

Advice about what we should try to do or be to feel happier misses the point. The therapist isn’t there to inform, though she may have informative – even impressive – ideas, or be a good conversationalist. Her job is to help us see, understand and accept that we ourselves are the main source of unhappiness – not ‘the world’ – so that we can make the needed internal changes. These problems don’t have solutions, as math or engineering problems do. But they can be resolved, or better, will dissolve, if we see and work on them.

Success in this work takes a perceptive, practiced and empathic therapist. But she  can’t do it alone – i.e. with a client who is passive and waiting to be cured. (I prefer the term ‘client’ to the term ‘patient’. The root meaning of patient is passive; a passive client won’t find a happy outcome.) A ‘self-medicating’ person who takes drugs to escape mental pain, is passive. She’s waiting for the drugs to do the work for her. But drugs can’t make anyone self-aware; they only bring forgetfulness.

If we can learn how we make ourselves unhappy, we can begin to practice not doing that, and open ourselves to a happier approach instead. This doesn’t mean we’re looking for ecstasy, or waiting to be overcome with joy; but relative peace and contentment are certainly within our  grasp. Our practice requires staying engaged in the world,  as I’ll discuss below. Can we get rid of everything that makes us unhappy? That sounds unreasonable, but it is conceivable. Remember, although many things are beyond our control, how we react to them we can control, as we’ve been discussing.

This is an ancient philosophical idea – long before modern psychology or mental health ‘science’. We’re not responsible for what lies beyond our control, like death, sickness, weather, people’s misdeeds that impact us, or what others think about us. (That is such a major concern for Americans today!). We can control our worries. In fact, if we could get rid of every worrisome thought, that would include the fear of death, as well as the  disappointment that happiness can’t last ‘forever’. So happiness – defined as getting rid of needless worries – can be complete, regardless of the length of any life. And while we’re alive, we can minimize the effects of uncontrollable events by prudent thinking, finding a few good friends, and simplifying our lives. We certainly don’t need to join the rat-race! All these relevant ideas about happiness can be found in the Letter to Menoeceus by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who also lived in chaotic times.

The biggest factor in the ‘practice of happiness’ is other people.

The ‘objectivity’ I’ve been discussing here is not enough. We can’t ‘get happy’ alone; we need other people. That doesn’t mean others can make us happy, though. No one can do that. Besides, if we believe they could, then they could also make us unhappy. As Sartre famously said, through one of the characters in his play No Exit: “Hell is other people”.

I won’t get into Sartre’s Existentialism here,  except to say that he emphasized the (absolute) foundational value of subjectivity. The ‘problem’ with other people, comes from his belief that every person is primarily a subject, which can’t be discovered, analyzed or known objectively, even by the  person herself – much less experienced by another. To every subject, every other person necessarily appears as an object, or thing. We unavoidably objectify others, which is an affront to their true unique selfhood – i.e. who they truly are as individuals. They do the same to us. It’s a conflict without a resolution. I think it’s an extreme view, but fascinating, and very influential. Sartre became almost a cult hero for French students in the mid-20th C.

Leaving existentialism aside, it remains true that we need others in the practice of happiness. It’s a social thing. It involves our behavior to other  people – not just a private act of will. If someone intends to find happiness, she will do something to bring it about – not just wish for it. Doing something involves caring, which The Dalai Lama calls being compassionate. That is where other people come in. He put it this way:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; and if you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion with yourself (Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness – A Handbook  For Living, 2009)

I would go farther, and say that we should want others to be happy, just as we naturally do want ourselves to be happy. So we need to practice compassion, or do good, for others, as well  as for ourselves. I think this is the gist of the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would want done to you” (Matthew 7:12). Perhaps a more manageable task is its negative form, sometimes called the Silver Rule: “Don’t do to others what you would not want done to you”. Some religious traditions call good deeds ‘charity’ (caritas). I like the term ‘compassion’ instead, because it involves a heartfelt commitment to another’s happiness – not just a behavior that might be empty, or even hypocritical.

The Art of Happiness was published in 1998 – co-authored by the Dalai Lama and his psychiatrist friend, Howard Cutler, MD. Cutler says that happiness is a matter of ‘scientific fact’ – i.e. that there are measurable aspects, observable by brain-scan technology, which confirm  what his Buddhist philosopher friend and collaborator (“His Holiness”) had long been saying. I disagree with the ‘naturalism’ of much that Cutler contributes to the book’s ideas about happiness. He seems to suggest it is reducible to brain states, and/or to observable behaviors. But compassion is primarily something mental – an attitude, neither organic nor observable – although it must be acted out to be meaningful. No doubt it manifests organic effects too, just as good and bad mental states have observable effects on our bodily health.

Most people are unhappy ‘for good reason’

From what I see around me  in the streets,  from what family, friends and acquaintances tell and show me, from what I hear and see via popular media sources of people’s words and actions, not to mention non-anecdotal evidence from ‘reputable’ sources about trends in various groups in the USA, I judge that few people have learned the helpful lessons I was given over the years. They appear generally unhappy – i.e. bored, suspicious, distracted, fatigued, dissatisfied, annoyed, etc. – and seem clueless about where happiness comes from, or how it might be achieved. There are countless ways to support this claim, but I like this short description of reality in Time, by an outsider – British observer, Ruth Whippman. Her main point is that people have unrealistic expectations, that can’t be met.

It’s not surprising to read that most Americans stand lower on the 2017 World Happiness Report than  they did 10 years ago, as well as relative to other countries. On some indexes and by other polls, they’re even less happy than they were 30 years ago.  I’m very skeptical about what we can learn from such reports, since it’s difficult to define happiness in observable facts, or know  what indexes can measure it. Even so, concepts like income, job security, optimism, family structure, health, environmental conditions, social and financial inequality, education, trust of government, incidence of drug use, stress levels, suicide rates, and how Americans rank  with other nations, do put some substance into the analyses.

Keeping this is mind, I think most people are unhappy ‘for good reasons’. The reasons consist of all the ‘ills of society’ that I’ve been examining for many years – a few of which I can summarize here.

One ‘ill’ I’ve focused on for decades involves how various media characterize and present events and issues to their audiences. Here’s a talk I gave on the topic of TV watching that was published in 1988 in Vital Speeches of the Day. I think the most popular and influential media are themselves a major ill of our society. They are instrumental in ‘what’s wrong’ with America (and other nations) – increasingly ‘part of the problem, not part of the solution’. Whatever the format – radio, television, film, video, print newspapers and journals (or their online versions), blogs, various ‘social media’, and even old fashioned hard-copy books (typically also available online) – their primary activity is marketing, their approach is entertainment, and their goal is money.

This money-making trend in media was well underway before the development of the Internet, as described in Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It has only intensified since everything is now available ‘online’.  The messages found in mainstream media make people self-concerned, fearful and neurotic about their ‘image’ and how they compare to others. In fact, Americans’ obsession with screen watching has become a dangerous addiction in itself, which Adam Alter describes in his recent book, Irresistible.

I’ve watched for years the growing conflict between TV producers who make kids’ shows, and sell ads, and concerned citizens who want to eliminate advertising from the content, as public children’s shows are intended to do. The producers are winning. Sadly, even some publicly funded shows have started the move to commercial control of content, like the classic Sesame Street.

Especially since the Reagan era, arguments  for protecting children from manipulative advertising have been trumped by arguments for ‘free speech’ – which means in practice permission to control kids’ thinking about products, and through them, their parent’s purchases. Here’s a recent discussion of this trend in marketing to children. In TV programming, up til now, there was a compromise, made by the FTC in 1990, which separated content and ads. In online programming the UK only last year banned junk food ads aimed (directly or indirectly) at children. In America there are effectively no limits, although current litigation  in the Federal Trade Commission may have some influence.

In the culture of financialization, which has taken off in the last 50 years, the poeople most successful at money making are those who can persuade others, not only to buy what they sell, but especially to put off immediate payment of purchases by use of credit and loans. This ‘generosity’ of easy credit encourages debt to grow in the lives of most people, while a small number of financiers at the top of the debt pyramid who ‘own’ the debt – the “One Percent” – can control those who have taken it on, whether through ignorance, foolishness, or of necessity.

I need not prove these ideas here; they are increasingly well known by those who are not controlled by popular, corporate media. An excellent summary of these trends is Michael Hudson’s recent book, J is for Junk Economics (2017). His bio and many of the themes he deals with are at his website. Another more focused study of financialization is by Scottish economist John Kay (2015) – Other People’s Money – which concentrates on changes in banking, and the damage to the real economy its emphasis on investment brings, here and world wide. Kay discusses the same issues in this 2015 video (25 min presentation; 25 min Q&A).

Public health is another area negatively affected by financialization. The health of large parts of the population has not significantly improved in decades, and in some respects is worse (e.g. in the epidemic problems of obesity, unhealthy food sources and diet, and drug use); and overall, health care is more  costly for everyone. Don’t think the cost is due to expensive technological improvements in medical procedures and products.  In other industries, the cost of new technologies comes down over time. The ‘medical industry’ too is under the control of financiers, who look on health, not as a public good, but as a financial opportunity. The evolution of health care as business is well documented in Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book An American Illness (2017) – not yet in paperback.  The introduction and a lengthy  ‘preview’ of the book can be found by pushing the “Look Inside” button at this site.

Finally, the list of issues I regularly think about must certainly include education. Schools – both public and private – have become financialized too, which I’ve watched develop over a long teaching career. Rather than informing and educating, they are now becoming ‘job training’ factories for the students, and money-making businesses for the management. Teachers are primarily employees, whose diminishing respect in communities results from their perceived role as ‘labor’, rather than  professionals, cheapened by negative publicity encouraged by ‘management’ and the politicians and financial supporters who benefit from lower wage costs, in the name of cost-effectiveness. Students are referred to as ‘customers’. The highest market ratings go to schools and teachers who are best at ‘customer satisfaction’.

Interestingly, when I did a Google search for “Financialization of education”, every entry dealt with higher ed. Not a word about  public (or private) K thru 12 schooling, with one exception: Life in Schools (2015), by Canadian teacher and critic Peter McLaren.  It’s radical, and provocative. My experience and study confirm the author’s claims, whether or not I agree with his proposals. The 6th edition gives an even stronger indictment of public schooling than previous editions. (To get McLaren’s general critique, scroll through the Contents, Forewords and Preface, to Part I – “Class Dismissed” – and read the first few pages of this selection .

This is my summary of some of the ‘modern ills’ I regularly study, and my judgments about them, in broad brush terms. Most of my writing consists of generalities, supported with documentation and reasoning. But they are generalities. For that reason, a reader can hear them – even understand them – without being emotionally disturbed by them. That’s because taking the ‘big picture’ viewpoint often allows us to ‘rise above’ things, and think in a rarefied atmosphere that seems abstract, theoretical, and somehow removed from reality.

We can read about, and understand, what’s going on down there (in the  streets and the countryside), but may comfortably think, ‘These ills don’t apply to me’, even when they do. I point this out, because I too, although convinced these idea which I study and report are true, can remain ‘objective’ about  them, and not be personally depressed by what they show. Personal emotional involvement is something altogether different, which I’ve been generally able to avoid. This worries me. Maybe I should be depressed.

Every effective news reporter knows the need for emotion-laden examples, in trying to move people. Saying that over 5000 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in  2016 (which is true) doesn’t have nearly the impact of a story about a single drowned child, especially if it’s illustrated with a photo. But let me suggest, it isn’t the particulars, or instances, that make the generalities live. It’s the feelings they can bring to the viewer, but that happens only if the facts relate to something she has experienced personally, or involve someone important to her.

People live their lives personally – even when they think in general terms. That holds for me too. I must remember it, and act on it, if I would live a real life, not a life in the clouds.

Backsliding to Unhappiness. 

As said above, my work and default thinking style involve close consideration of the ‘ills‘ of our society (which are many and great)  – e.g. inequality, injustice, corruption, deception, blue-collar crime, fraud, myth-making, ignorance, drug abuse, violence and hatred – but my ‘philosophic’ perspective has protected me from the suffering that seems so common today, until recently.

Why did I find myself lately backsliding into unhappy mind states? And how, if at all, did some other experiences, and the reflections they stimulated, change those negative, debilitating states of mind for the better? Was it a conscious or subconscious effort on my part? Or the return to a default habit of mind? Or serendipity? Or providence?

There are many factors that might have been ‘triggers’ to start bringing me ‘down’. What they all share is personal feelings, rather than a general ideas. For instance, thinking ‘I should do something about the woes I see besetting our country’ is depressing, because it feels impossible. My habit is to learn about problems, then write or talk about them, and ideally offer some helpful ideas. But I know most people don’t like serious reading, nor do they want to discuss or even think about such issues. They’re used to looking for relief, or diversion – not understanding. No one likes ‘bad news’, when it involves them. They may find interest  – even entertainment – in seeing other people’s disasters,  but thinking critically about them, understanding trends, realizing their relevance to themselves, and acting on them is not entertaining. It’s hard to think well. It’s ‘boring’. Besides, they’re too busy already to add these critiques to their plate. A vicious circle.

Can I correct these ills directly? I can vote for changes, periodically, but that’s insignificant, and hardly an occupation. Besides, I’m convinced that voting is a diversion and masquerade, in the form of public entertainment and fascination with ritual. Elections are ‘rigged’, not by Russian intervention, but by the corrupting influence of money. I used to argue with students, suggesting that if they spent time and energy  enough to know which candidates  to choose (assuming any of them),  their ‘enlightened’ vote would be entirely negated by the deluge of ordinary ‘unenlightened’ votes. It’s not worth the effort it would take. That’s pure rational ‘cost-benefit analysis’. Even so, I vote.

I can’t find a meaningful part-time teaching role. I’ve tried. And being retired from teaching, I no longer have the ‘captive audience’ I was sometimes able to motivate, and help to learn about the  big forces in their lives. And political activism is out for me at this time, because it takes more stamina, energy and pugnacious character than I have.

Recent health issues and age-related wear and tear hinder travel plans. I was fortunate to explore and learn about other cultures and people, which can be better known from experience than by hearsay or research alone. Knowing this adds feelings of frustration and uselessness to the sense of impotence to correct these ‘ills’.

Trying to repair malfunctions of an aging frame often feel like wasted effort. Moreover, in trying to improve current ‘dis-eases’ (which I needn’t list), I experience personally some of the ill effects of the financialization in medicine – another of the ‘ills’ I study – the illness of healthcare (about which much is being written), including Elizabeth   Rosenthal’s new book to which I referred above: An American Illness.

These frustrations are manageable sources of frustration. Complaints, mainly. But seeing loved  ones suffer from the same societal ‘ills’ I write about puts emotional flesh on the dry bones of my philosophical ‘understanding’.  It’s painful to see my children – especially the younger ones and their young friends whom I know – share the same financial problems of the majority of young people today, including those allegedly in the ‘middle class’. They’re often on the edge of crisis, and ‘on edge’ from the stress that position brings, and the potential shame. These strong ties invite feelings of guilt, for not having helped them better to see and prepare for the pitfalls ahead, or given them better opportunities, or encouraged better habits. Nor can I get them out of trouble at this time.

A final personal experience had me dealing with anger, which I’d thought to have put away long ago. It even stirred a desire to punish someone, against the prodding of my ‘better angels’. In a neighborhood coffee shop I frequent, I was surprised to see a man I’d seen and talked to briefly some years ago, in a different coffee shop, who had disappeared from the neighborhood. (At the time, I had judged he was a scammer.) This time he told me his name (Richard), underscoring the ‘Rich’ part, and proudly listing some of his accomplishments in making money. He added that his nickname, ‘Dick‘, says a lot about his reputation, and his habit of imposing his will on others, pushing himself into their conversations, and using his skills of persuasion to make them do things he wanted. But he claimed it was always “in their best interests” to hear him. (These were his words, and the line he pursued with me, after I said his disregard for people’s freedom is immoral). He is 73. His aggressive style has, by his own account, alienated him from his family, and brought on his divorce 20 years ago – but that hadn’t affected his sex life, he added quickly.

I wanted to be ‘objective’ so we talked further. Dick’s words almost convinced me that he was merely strange and annoying in the extreme. However, the next day I watched and heard (at the far end of the counter) his conversation with an acquaintance of mine. I tried to intervene: “Don’t impose yourself on her”. He stopped me, saying this was an “appointment”. I apologized and left, embarrassed and angry. Later, I emailed her about their ‘appointment’ as he had called it. She was relieved, because she had tried to reach me, but lost my number. She went on to say Dick had caught her at a very vulnerable moment, when she was breaking up with a boyfriend, and convinced her to consult with him before she kept her scheduled visit with a professional therapist the next day. So her meeting with him was planned. Apparently he ‘sells himself’ (literally), taking pay for any advice and ‘life coaching’ he persuades people to accept.  My friend observed that Dick is smart, charismatic and “charming”. She agreed he’s a predator, who “ought to put his skills to better use”. I would go farther than that. In fact I did.

When I reported all this to the coffee shop manager, who had gotten complaints about Dick, it confirmed his suspicions. Dick was barred from the premises, and other allied shops in the neighborhood. But that didn’t stop my angry feelings and desire for vengeance. Should I post his photo here? …

In these ways my generalizations about social ills got personalized with feeling, and brought me out of a safe philosophical perspective into the harsh realm of unhappy emotion. In the same period I’ve had good experiences too, but they’re not so emotionally moving. Why is that? How do you ‘weigh’ the emotional content of an experience, whether positive or negative? It’s  very subjective. Here are a couple examples.

A family of friends insisted on buying online both books I published, even though I wanted to give them away. They sent me a photo with their bright smiles, holding the books for me to see. Thoughtful and sweet! That was a big lift.

Another acquaintance started a frank and open conversation, sharing problems caused by his upbringing in Lebanon (where the norm is to show feelings openly, among family and friends). The encounter was gratifying. He also quizzed me about why I am reserved. That was uncomfortable, especially since I’ve turned down his several offers to make me a good Middle-Eastern meal, and have a social get together. So he gave me more opportunities for valuable self-awareness and criticism.

Now and then, against the norm, strangers will show a positive spirit, returning a smile or a greeting in passing, or exchanging cheerful comments while waiting for the light to change. That brings a smile. I get a lift too to see someone putting litter in trash cans. Occasionally I even see a particularly conscientious  person walking down the sidewalk, looking for litter to clean up! My mother would have been proud of these folks. She did the same. And I do too, most of the time, except when I’m crabby. If I were to throw trash on the sidewalk, which is getting to be the norm in our neighborhood, it would feel disrespectful to my mother (or her memory).

These then are experiences that have shown me the importance of getting emotionally involved, as well as the value of trying to maintain objectivity. The philosophical viewpoint may insulate me from many unhappy feelings, but the distant view isn’t enough to bring happiness. Indeed, it might bring carelessness, which will make happiness impossible. I’m sure of that.

Whatever may be the true cause of these changes, both for the better, and for the worse, I’ve come to know first hand that understanding happiness isn’t enough to bring happiness. Neither will being objective about misery keep it at bay. Practice is vital. If my old lessons about happiness have become only habits of thought, without ‘doing’ what is helpful, and refusing to do what is harmful, I won’t get through new bad times, any better than my family, friends and acquaintances, or the rest of the population in America.

In the end, this is my belief. We all have bad mental states, and every person is needy of compassion, regardless of how happy and fortunate she may appear.  Ultimately, compassion is available to us from sources that aren’t in nature. In fact, all mental states, whether positive or negative, are conditions of our inner character – i.e. our spirit. We’re essentially spiritual beings, even while alive ‘in the world’. Whether these mental states are good or bad depends on our choice to do or not do what we think we should. That’s a very real, free and practical choice for every person – you and me. It’s not an imaginative fantasy about some conceptual ethereal disembodied  will-o-the-wisp, the way that doubters might like to style any talk about spirit.







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Rene Girard and Emanuel Swedenborg – Radical Religious Conservatives

René_Girard photo Swedenborg_full_portrait

I apologize if the title of this article sounds presumptuous. Not being an expert about either of these thinkers who have inspired me, I can’t critique their ideas generally. But as a longtime teacher and student of both philosophy and religion, and especially of critical thinking, I can point to some of their similarities and differences, and suggest fruitful areas for further comparison and contrast.

‘Radical’ and ‘conservative’ don’t fit together comfortably. But these men share similar ways of thinking about god, religion and human nature that are radical – going to the roots of these topics; and they are conservative in their commitment to absolute truth, and its divine source, which are old fashioned compared to trends in modern philosophy and religious studies.

I was raised on Swedenborg’s theology, but discovered Girard only 6 years ago, at age 72. I was struck by how their thoughts complement each other, and although neither man is widely known or has great influence, their ideas share a view of humanness, social structure, spirituality and the divine that is revolutionary. Both are modest about their knowledge, but don’t hesitate to go head to head with their opponents, no matter how respected or popular the latter are. Their views diverge far from the norm of historical methodology too, and the efforts to explain human history from its “archaic” beginnings. They even show why their perspectives are considered preposterous by their critics, as “modernism” has developed, and paradoxically, why that fact confirms the validity of their claims. This is the kind of ‘religious conservativism’ I think is needed – quite apart from any political viewpoint that label might suggest.


Rene Girard (1923 – 2015) is known primarily for his theory of “mimetic desire”. A good summary of this topic and Girard’s other work is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) article “Rene Girard”. Mimetic desire involves the fact that humans mimic others, doing things that others do, and wanting to have what others have. But it goes much farther than that. A visitor to zoos soon learns that even higher apes imitate others. Maybe that’s why we love to watch them; they’re so human! Mimesis, as Girard describes it, is a function of desiring something because someone else desires it. That is, our motives (not just behavior) are imitative – even to the point of desiring what is to our obvious detriment. (Think fancy cars and a house in suburbia).  In its simplest form, mimetic desire is obviously the basis of all marketing.

What is not obvious, or even believed, is that this mimetic desire in humans has a triangular structure, comprised of self (the ‘subject’), other (the ‘model’ or ‘mediator’), and the object of desire (e.g. a product, style, skill, reputation, etc.) We desire what the mediator desires. If in turn the mediator is aware of our desire for the same object, then she may well see us as a competitor, and make us the mediator for her own desires. This way competition can intensify, to the point where the desired object is no longer important, and each mediator is only concerned – even obsessed – with the ‘other’ as a competitor.

Destructive competition won’t occur howeve, if the model and the subject can’t compete, because they inhabit totally separate worlds, and don’t or cannot have the same object. For instance, a “Special Olympics” participant in wheel chair basketball might have Michael Jordan as a mediating model for how to play basketball, but Jordan and the disabled athlete cannot have the same goal. Jordan’s object lies beyond her reality. He is what Girard calls her “external mediator”.

Mimetic desire can go yet a step further, to become what Girard calls “metaphysical desire”. That’s the point where an imitator wants to be her mediator. Obviously, this object can’t be achieved; no one can be another, but can imagine it. Metaphysical desire can only generate frustration, obsession, hatred and even a desire to destroy the mediator.

All these potentially destructive mimetic triangles exist only in the minds of the imitators – not in the world of things to be possessed. They are psychological. Girard says they ‘have no reality’. [The Girard Reader p. 34] Here are some more illustrations.

Suppose Wolf notices that one of her Facebook ‘friends’ wears clothes that get lots of ‘likes’. Wolf’s ‘object’ will be to get ‘liked’ too. Her friend will become Wolf’s ‘mediator’, and Wolf will likely try to dress like her, so far as possible. As in the case of commercial models, Wolf’s mediator influences other ‘friends’ too, which increases the popularity of the ‘right’ clothes. The result might be that these clothes begin to cost too much; but they may also become common, and fall out of style. In either case, Wolf will look for another mediator.

Needless to say, professional models of all sorts, including style trend-setters, TV and film stars, and politicians, are steeped in mimetic rivalry. It is often caustic, but seldom violent. Even so, it can do great harm to those who are sucked in by their mediators. Marketing everywhere works on Girardian principles.

For a more complex instance, suppose your brother is often praised by your mother for getting high grades in school. If you want praise, you’ll take your brother as a model, and seek high grades too. However, since he is likely to know you are doing this, he will see you as a competitor, and will try harder, and you in turn will do the same regarding him, especially if your mother encourages the comparison. He and you will soon look on each other as a threat. Unhappy consequences are likely.

Here’s an example from my life. At an early age, I desired ‘knowledge’ – i.e. to find truth – and ‘to understand life’.  No doubt this desire was provoked by my family’s habit of discussing at the dining table whatever issues seemed important, but they usually avoided being gossipy or catty. That’s because our interesting conversations were firmly based on Swedenborg’s ideas, which were also the focus of our church, school and surrounding community where I was raised. But Swedenborg’s ‘mediation’ in our discussions involved taking what his ideas as matters of ‘faith’, even though Swedenborg himself frequently emphasizes the fundamental importance and value of reason, as well as the risks that reason includes. Our family was risk averse.

The trouble for me only became clear in hindsight, after I left home for college, married, spent time in the Army, and settled into a teaching job. The mediator in the family of my childhood – which was their understanding of Swedenborg – no longer worked for me. I wanted to understand – not just believe – those ideas. In fact, I grew to be critical and rebellious as an adolescent, thinking my parents were closed-minded and prejudiced, especially in matters of political and economic philosophies – e.g., in their enthusiasm for traditional views about a ‘free market’.

As a teacher of philosophy, comparative religions, and ‘the humanities’ (history of ideas and the arts), I continued to want knowledge and truth. Quite naturally, great thinkers in those disciplines became my mediators, especially Plato, the idealist. I desired, and still desire, to be as good at thinking well, and as effective at motivating students to do the same, as Socrates was. I imitated what I knew of his approach, asking questions and trying to evoke critical discussion. In fact, I moved out of classrooms whenever possible, and met students in various comfortable open spaces, or outdoors under the trees, or occasionally in local bars (when their ages permitted), to find a more discussion-friendly environment. I didn’t like the impression of authority, and one-way transmission of ideas and ‘truth’, found in the accoutrements of a typical classroom (e.g. smartboard, lectern, projector, students in rows facing the teacher, etc.) These are ‘necessities’ in schooling as mass production.

My style caused little conflict at the college where I taught, even when the president publicly commented on how students liked it, and made sure there were ‘discussion areas’ available for anyone who wanted to follow suit. Other teachers began to be ‘Socratic’ too, without any obvious competition or ill will developing. It could have existed if someone took me as a mediator of teaching techniques, and we were competing for student approval, or took the president as mediator, and were competing for his approval. But at that time, the spirit in our school was generally collegial, and I’m not aware of any instance where the mimetic triangle developed. But I’m quite aware of prestigious institutions of ‘higher education’ where this competitive aspect of academia is very common, and does harm to students.


Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772) is known primarily for his philosophical theology, which he undertook at the age of 59, being called (as he said) to the mission of explaining biblical scriptures. Previous to that, he was a scientific philosopher, studying how nature and spirit are related, in the manner of Descartes or even Kant. Here’s a short biography from the Swedenborg Foundation.

Swedenborg holds that written Hebrew and Christian scriptures have an inner or spiritual meaning that can only be understood if one has the ‘code’ to unlock the secrets. Whatever the Word seems to express in the literal form, some of which refers to obvious moral principles, or refers to names, places and events in middle eastern history, there is an additional inner, spiritual truth to be learned, which is never obvious. Correspondence is what Swedenborg calls this code, which relates the outer, worldly meaning to its spiritual messages. This way of reading was known to ancient peoples, but was lost, due to countless generations of increasingly materialistic orientation.

Spiritual truth contained in the scriptures can be known today, but only with divine assistance, and only to the degree that the seeker recognizes the divine origin of truth, and desires to apply this knowledge to living a good life – i.e. a life of service to others, which we can call compassion. Without this application to life, the truths one knows are simply ideas, and eventually will dissipate. Our default mode is to gratify our innate self-interest. For this reason, we naturally tend to accept, and rationalize, whatever falsity and delusions strengthen what we value, and the desires they generate. This agrees with Girard’s idea that desires govern us.

From the perspective of a follower of Swedenborg, I believe Girard has amazing insight into the weaknesses of human nature, and into the means God provides to save us all, namely God’s Word. Girard says that the Gospels – when properly understood – is presently the medium for saving everyone. This is true wherever they may live, and whether or not they are aware of Christian teachings, or have even heard the name of Christ. It makes me think Girard is one of the devoted seekers of the real meaning of the Gospel whom Swedenborg characterizes, who are given access to inner truth, by the divine mediator. This access is always possible, despite constant efforts of the “Father of Lies” Girard discusses so eloquently in his essay “How Can Satan Cast out Satan?” [See The Girard Reader, Ch. 13] Only God can know the true spiritual state of any of us at any time, but in my view, Girard fits the model of an inspired student.

I don’t know if Girard ever studied, or even heard of Swedenborg, yet both men insist that scripture – The Word – has never been understood, from the time it was first revealed to Jews and Christians (what we might call the followers of the “Old and New Testaments”). Even so, both men agree, the spirit of this Gospel has been working from its beginning long before writing – as it were secretly or providentially – to effect the needed changes in humans and society since ‘the fall’, which both these thinkers undertake to explain.

Revealing the true interpretation of scripture is the calling that Swedenborg expressly claims to have received and undertaken. Swedenborg’s role as a revelator is something strange – indeed unique among Enlightenment philosophers and scientists – and it was fiercely opposed in his time, even by people who believed in revealed truth, and tried to validate it philosophically, e.g. Kant. But the 19th century did see claims of new revelations (e.g. by Joseph Smith to the Mormon faithful in America, and The Bab to the Bahai faithful in Iran), as well as an explosion of claims for, and endorsements of various spiritual influences, healings, and direct or indirect communication with the ‘spirit world’ (e.g., Homeopathy, Christian Science, Theosophy and Jehovah’s Witness). There are studies which connect some of these, as well as 20th century ‘transcendent’ world views to Swedenborg’s influence, but this is not the place.

In any case, Girard and Swedenborg hold that desires come to us from some “other” – they are not our own creation. The opposing view is one which Girard derides as a “Romantic Lie”. It is the basis of all post-modern thinking, which presents itself under various – even contradictory – names, each claiming to have the true picture of humanity. This lie manifests as increasingly extreme forms of self-interest, disdain for truth, and individualism masquerading as democracy.  The French novelist Stendhal ridicules the vaniteux (“vain person”) in his 1830 book, Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), which greatly influenced Girard’s ideas of “mimetic desires”. Here is Girard’s characterization, from his 1961 Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

The romantic vaniteux always wants to convince him­self that his desire is written into the nature of things, or, which amounts to the same thing, that it is the emanation of a serene subjectivity, the creation ex nihilo of a quasi­ divine ego. Desire is no longer rooted in the object perhaps, but it is rooted in the subject; it is certainly not rooted the Other… The objective and subjective fallacies are one and the same; both originate in the image we all have of our own desires. Subjectivisms and objectivisms, romanticisms and realisms, individualisms and scientisms, idealisms and positivisms appear to be in opposition but are in secret agreement to conceal the presence of the mediator. All these dogmas are the aesthetic or philosophic translation of worldviews peculiar to internal mediation.  They all depend directly or indirectly on the lie of spontaneous desire. They all defend the same illusion of autonomy to which modern man is passionately devoted.

We don’t originate any of our desires; this is also a major theme of Swedenborg. We are ‘vessels’ which receive every aspect of love, desire, thought and sensation. All life has a single source – the Divine. Humans are ‘life receivers’, and their belief in autonomous choices and desires is a delusion, encouraged by natural thinking. In True Christianity he says,

There is a generally held belief that there is life in us, that it belongs to us, and that therefore we are not only vessels for receiving life but we ourselves are life. This common belief derives from the way things appear to be, because we are alive, that is, we sense, think, speak, and act completely as if we had autonomy. Therefore, the statement that we are not life, but are vessels for receiving life, cannot help but seem like something completely unheard of before, or like a paradox that goes against our sense-oriented thinking because it goes against the way things appear to be. I have blamed this misleading belief on the way things appear to be – the belief that we are in fact life, and therefore that life has been created as part of us and grafted onto us from birth. But the real reason for this misleading belief (which is based on the way things appear to be) is that many people today are earthly, and few are spiritual. The earthly self makes judgments based on appearances and resulting false impressions, when in fact these run directly counter to the truth, which is that we are not life but are vessels for receiving life. [TC 470, my emphasis]

Essentially, every human is her mind or spirit. This consists of what she loves (or commits to), and what she believes or discerns (which give form and support to what she loves). This is like the traditional Aristotelian duality of ‘will’ and ‘intellect’. In Divine Providence, Swedenborg says,

Our whole spirit is desire and its consequent thought; and since all desire is a matter of love and all thought a matter of discernment, our whole spirit is its love and its consequent discernment. This is why our thinking flows from the desires of our love when we are thinking solely from our own spirit, as we do when we are in reflective moods at home.

We may conclude, then, that when we become spirits (which happens after death), we are the desire of our love, and not our thought except to the extent that it comes from that desire. We are drawn to what is evil (which amounts to a compulsion) if our love has been a love for what is evil, and we are drawn to what is good if our love has been a love for what is good. We are drawn to what is good to the extent that we have abstained from evils as sins; and we are drawn to what is evil to the extent that we have not abstained from evils. [DP 61]

The idea of freedom as total psychological independence is part of the “romantic lie” that Girard exposes. Swedenborg too says we all hold tightly to the belief that we are free, but by nature, we’re bound to selfishness. We need to become free, and that requires help – ultimately from the Lord. This is from his book The New Jerusalem:

No matter how similar they look on the surface, freedom to do good and freedom to do evil are as different and as remote from each other as heaven and hell…. To the extent that we have the one freedom we do not have the other—no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We can also see from this that people who have freedom see it as slavery and bondage if they are not allowed to will what is evil and think what is false whenever they feel like it, while people who have heavenly freedom loathe to will anything evil and to think anything false, and if they are forced to do so, it torments them.

Since acting from freedom seems to us to come from ourselves, heavenly freedom can also be called “heavenly selfhood” and hellish freedom can be called “hellish selfhood.” Hellish selfhood is the sense of self into which we are born, and it is evil. Heavenly selfhood, though, is the sense of self into which we come as we are reformed, and it is good. [NJ 144, 145]

I believe this is the idea of Jesus’ words: “If you abide in my words, you shall the know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” [John 8: 31, 32] “If you abide in my words…” People usually leave out this vital qualifier. Freedom is not just doing what we desire, although when I asked students, ‘What is freedom?’ that was the default answer I could count on.

Both Girard and Swedenborg hold that all people on earth have the opportunity to be saved, which is provided through the real meaning of the Word, making itself known as the ‘helper’ (paraclete). This is the “spirit of truth” (or spiritual truth), mentioned in John 1:1 – the incarnation of God who is the Word. It’s not necessary to be a Christian. Anyone who does what she thinks is right will be saved. It’s a cruel heresy to think that only those who believe in Christ can be saved. According to Swedenborg,

It is an insane heresy to believe that only those born in the [Christian] church are saved. People born outside the church are just as human as people born within it. They come from the same heavenly source. They are equally living and immortal souls. They have religions as well, religions that enable them to believe that God exists and that they should lead good lives; and all of them who do believe in God and lead good lives become spiritual on their own level and are saved, as already noted (DP 326). [DP330(c)]

In fact, Christians are not typically the best of humans. They neither understand nor practice what the Gospels teach. Swedenborg continues,

Christians get the commandments of their religion from the Word, but not many of them actually take any commandments of life from it.

Catholics do not read it, and Protestants who believe in faith separated from charity pay no attention to what it says about life, only to what it says about faith. Yet the whole Word is nothing but a theology of life. [DP330, my emphasis]

Scapegoating and violent beginnings

Girard moved from fiction to mythology – from literary criticism to anthropological research – and discovered mimetic structures in both places. Studying ‘archaic’ communities, he found the same way of thinking and acting ‘in the real world’ as in the fictional. These communities are tribal, pre-literate, and even pre-rational. How did they deal with the inevitable conflict and chaos that are the natural outcome of ‘mimetic desires’? Larger, literate, developed ‘civilizations’ have controls that avoid total social disorder. How did primal groups maintain order? His answer is the ‘scapegoating’ phenomenon.

Girard argues that a primal society on the verge of chaos, resulting from the competition, mutual distrust and violence that mimetic desires bring, would spontaneously ‘discover’ someone to blame for their problems – a scapegoat. They would expel or kill her, in a group action, like stoning, drowning or forcing off a cliff. But paradoxically, their fixation on the alleged cause of their trouble – usually someone ‘different’, like a cripple, rule breaker or ‘outsider’ – and their shared violence against her, would unify the community, and reestablish order. After the fact, they would all recognize her double influence, for disorder and order. The person who was responsible for all their troubles was also she who had cured them. She would become a cosmic god, able to do both evil and good.

Not wanting to admit to themselves the unacceptable fact that they had killed their scapegoat-savior, the archaic community disguised the scapegoating violence in symbolic mythology and ritual, which would be repeated periodically, in order to to ensure the continuation of their social order. Girard examines many myths, and convincingly teases out the disguised originary scapegoating event for that group. His controversial conclusion is that every archaic religion (and the social order that rests on its mythology and rites) originated in violence against an innocent.

However, Girard’s extensive exegesis of world mythologies, including biblical literature, revealed a strange exception: Hebrew and Christian scriptures do not hide the scapegoat victimization. Uniquely, they show the innocence of the scapegoat, if not always remorse over it. In fact, they demonstrate in various texts that the only acceptable way to bring social order is to reject violence and replace it with love – in emulation of Jesus.

Gerard concentrates on Christianity, but points out that the Hebrew scriptures also contain this message, but less openly than the teaching and example of Christ. For that matter, neither Jews nor Christians have really gotten the radical message of the Gospels (‘Good News’). They are still living in the spirit of scapegoating, and violence against opponents, and are increasingly ‘buying into’ the victimization inherent in the larger civil community. The specifics differ, but the general theme is: it’s all right to sacrifice a few ‘for the good of the whole’.

In brief, Girard claims every archaic culture’s order is based on an original act of violence against a scapegoat. I can’t effectively argue the point. I think it depends on what one calls ‘archaic’, either in terms of history, or prehistory, or as having a written code to follow. Girardians describe the thinking of such communities as ‘pre-rational’, ‘pre-representation’, ‘pre-literate’ – rather like what Freud described in Group Psychology (1921) as qualitiees that belong to ‘uncivilized’ cultures, noting that today’s crowds can easily revert , in tense situations, or under incitement, to such emotion governed, suggestible and contagious thinking. (One Girardian journal is called Contagion.) However, many social scientists today will bristle at any talk about some cultures being ‘uncivilized’ or ‘primitive’.

I don’t think Girard is making moral or spiritual judgments about archaic communities, but rather is saying that victimization has always been part of their way of dealing with mimetic desires that are the ‘natural’ tendencies of people at birth. He says,

But mimetic rivalry is not satanic to begin with, it is not sinful per se, it is only a permanent occasion of sin [The Girard Reader, p. 198]

This is not equivalent to the orthodox Christian view of ‘orginal sin’. It especially differs from Protestant norms. Girard’s view of this originary state is described in the Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy article “Rene Girard”:

Under Girard’s interpretation, there is a twofold sense of original sin: 1) human beings are born with the propensity to imitate each other and, eventually, be led to violence; 2) human culture was laid upon the foundations of violence. Thus, human nature is tainted by an original sin, but it can be saved through repentance materialized in the withdrawal from violence. [IEP “Rene Girard”, Sec 5d]

Swedenborg too says that ‘self-centered’ desires are our natural inheritance, and claims that this fact is the true meaning of “original sin” – not the Fall in the garden, but what that story symbolizes – which a knowledge of correspondence can reveal. It’s a spiritual disease that has continued to infect societies, regardless of their size or degree of civilization, up to the present. Both men say that this disease can only be overcome by divine intervention, through the efficacy of the Word. In True Christianity Swedenborg says,

For man is enticed by two loves, the love of ruling over all, and the love of possessing the wealth of all. These loves, if uncurbed, rush onward to infinity. The hereditary evils into which man is born have arisen principally from these two loves; nor was the sin of Adam any other than a desire to become as God, which evil the serpent infused into him… [with the result that] “the earth should bring forth the thorn and the thistle to him” (Gen 3:5, 18) which means all evil and falsity therefrom.

All who are enslaved by these loves, look upon themselves as the one only object, in which and for which all others exist. Such have no pity, no fear of God, no love for the neighbor; consequently they are unmerciful, inhuman and cruel …

That man is inwardly such, is manifest in seditious disturbances when the bonds of law are loosed, and also in massacres and pillaging, when the signal is given to soldiers that they are free to satiate their fury upon the conquered or besieged; from which scarcely anyone desists until the drum beats the order to do so.

From all this it is clear that if no fear of legal penalties restrained men, not only society, but the whole human race, would be destroyed. [TC 498]

But for any individual, if she did not (or does not) believe violence against others is wrong, then she would not be held culpable by a loving god. I’m not confident to say the injunction to ‘love thy neighbor’ is equivalent to total ‘non-violence’. That would seem to preclude me from acting forcefully (as in defending or protecting others), to whatever degree needed. But violent acts against the innocent, or out of hatred or self-interest, is never excusable. I recently tried to summarize Girard’s thinking to an acquaintance, who asked if ‘covering over’ the scapegoating in primal mythology implies that it was seen to be wrong. I don’t know how Girard would answer, but it seems so.

The question for me in this notion of culpability is when (either historically, or in prehistory) people began to understand or perceive what is right, sufficiently to make a free choice to follow (or not follow) that perception. Swedenborg emphasizes that people are not culpable for what they do in ignorance, or are compelled to do. People are only responsible for what they choose to do in freedom. Unfortunately, countless generations of increasingly naturalistic thinking, from ancient times until the present, have led to the tendency to ignore what is right, and favor what is not right – favoring worldly pleasure, and power, over concern for the welfare of others, and love of god – so that all people today need help to regain good motives. Ultimately this help comes from the source of all good and all life.

Girard thinks the Lord’s Incarnation is to give a concrete expression to the idea of siding with victims, and eschewing violence, and proving that it can be done. Christ’s death does not buy people’s salvation (the doctrine of redemption) nor appease a god who is angry. Christ is God. [IEP 5b] This is also at the core of Swedenborg’s teachings. There is one god, who is not “three divine persons”; this god came into nature to show what is needed to ‘come into his kingdom’, and to make that spiritual development possible. Each human must play a role in allowing herself to be saved – by living as she should (and not doing what she should not do), and recognizing that her attempts at a good life are always the result of God’s eternal concern to bring all people to himself.

As a professor of philosophy and of the world’s religions, I’ve used Swedenborg’s ideas, but usually without identifying myself as a believer in his revelation. I’ve come to think that being raised under the tutelage of Swedenborg’s teachings is the greatest gift I can imagine, yet I’ve been uncomfortable – even embarrassed at times – to tell people that Swedenborg is a revelator of the divine Word. My students and other acquaintances have generally looke askance at this idea, either because they already believe in some other ‘normal’ religion, or because they are ‘modern’ thinkers, who believe all religions are useless superstition at best, and often troublesome or even dangerous.

Besides, it wasn’t my desire or role as a teacher to proselytize. I tried for years to present these revealed teachings in philosophical clothing. But nearing the end of my days, I’m convinced it’s not possible to make satisfactory sense of life without the help of religious belief. Philosophy alone – as much as I love it passionately – is not enough. We cannot reason our way to freedom, or morality, without presuming (never proving) that there is a spiritual realm, where our minds operate, in which we can find moral truth, make free choices whether or not to follow them, and be guided in this by the Lord’s loving providence. This conviction is the conclusion of my 1916 book: Modern Or Moral – The Conflict of Freedom and Nature.



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