Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Kristor on spiritual maps


From the comments to yesterday's posting, a mini-essay from Kristor:

The way I have parsed this is to distinguish between map and territory. Scholasticism, and more generally philosophy and theology – including even Eastern mystical theology – are maps. You get into trouble when you begin to be more attached to your map than to the territory.

When it comes to theology, this error arises when the thinking is dissociated in the thinker’s life from his direct devotional/mystical/revelatory experience. My reading of Aquinas indicates to me that his thought life was definitely not dissociated from his devotional life, or, for that matter, from concrete experience in general. On the contrary, Aquinas is one of the most concrete, common-sense philosophers I have read. Many of his refutations – perhaps even most of them – are of doctrines that are radically incompatible with life as we actually experience it, but that have nevertheless grown popular enough to call for their refutation.

If you hike along treating your map as more authoritative than the territory, you are going to get lost, because maps can be properly interpreted only in terms of and by reference to the territory. So, Scholastic philosophy can be terribly useful and enlightening, but it should not ever become the main thing.

Similar caveats apply to scientific life, to politics, to legalism (ecclesial and secular) – to life in general. Scholars are particularly prone to this danger of idolizing the map, but anyone who has tasted the allure of that delicious feeling of systemic intellectual mastery is vulnerable. Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism are all equally susceptible to this error (this is why, despite the overwhelming force and integrity of the mystical experience common to all 3 traditions, the schisms perdure). 

And, these days, the set of people who have been seduced by the temptation to intellectual mastery includes most of the population. Much of your work is about how our culture has got itself all tied up in great messy knots – in falsehood, error, sin, and wickedness – through an over-emphasis on rules, procedures, committees, etc. Viz., any of your stuff on pc, bureaucracy, etc. Much of our current problem as a culture derives from the fact that most of our people are wholly employed in dealing with these map issues; almost all “knowledge workers” are spending their lives on interpreting and reconciling maps, and never ever raise their heads to look out the window. I have referred to this portion of the economy as the “fake” economy.

On the other hand, if you try to get through the wilderness without a map, you are going to have a much, much harder time of it – and the chance of getting lost in such a situation is far, far greater than it would be if you had even the most sketchy and inaccurate map. I know this from experience! Having a lousy map is infinitely better than having no map at all, especially when lives are at stake (NB: lives are always at stake). It can be done – that’s how maps get charted in the first place – but it’s a lot harder, and more error-prone.

One may of course hire a guide, who knows the territory directly. One may apprentice oneself to a master; sooner or later, advancement in the spiritual life depends upon this step. There aren’t many masters, these days, or ever, I suppose. So, most people must fall back on maps.

As to where we go from here, I think you are right that simply substituting the old maps for the current maps is not going to work. Because they interpret things in such radically whacked categories, that would seem to our modernist interlocutors as if we were speaking Latin at them. From the modern perspective, the Traditionalist maps are simply incomprehensible; indeed, they seem like wicked deluded nonsense. 

No; we need to confront the territory directly. One must first experience the truth in order to know it, or to know that one has known it, or then – last of all – to try to formalize it in a statement or map that others can use, can follow, back to that experience of truth. Experience of truth is the main thing, the first thing, always.

Where we must start then is to keep pointing out to moderns that their map is deeply whacked; that it is leading us directly over the precipice. We must point to the precipices that now surround us on every side but one (the one that leads back over the way we traversed in order to get to this tiny point of cornice, high above the abyss); as in, “Hallo! Look at the demographic death that is already upon us!” Once they see themselves teetering at the very lip of that great maw, they will throw their wicked old maps away as fast as they can, and scamper on tip-toes back over the narrow road that leads back to the highway. Then and only then might we be able to rummage about in our rucksacks for the old maps that we once used, with some interest in actually using them again.



  1. I suppose Kristor is not a Catholic or even Orthodox?

  2. @Gyan - Well, I shall let the man himself respond in more detail, if he wishes to - but I think I can (without breaking confidence) confirm what is obvious - that Kristor is small-c catholic.

  3. Confusing map and territory is the main flaw of the left brain.

    The left brain creates an abstract version of the world (a simplified model), which is logical and consistent (McGilChrist called it "a virtual world"). Kind of a dream à la "The Mattrix".

    Then it thinks that this model or map IS the world. Even if reality is against the model (for example, inherability of IQ), the reality is rejected and the map is embraced.

    This is the root of political correctness.


  4. By the way, Kristor. This is one of your finest. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Why would you guess that Kristor is none of the above?

    Also, I think we're on the highway to Hell, and it is the correct path that is traditionally described as straight and narrow. But otherwise, excellent. Aquinas' final pronouncement on his work said as much.

  6. @GR - I may be misunderstanding your comment, but by small c catholic I mean K is generically catholic. But without specifying his particular denomination.

  7. I'm entirely orthodox: I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  8. @ Gabe: I meant by highway the one that is made staight in the wilderness for our God. Narrow it is, indeed, and terribly stait.

  9. Peter S. said…

    I am reminded of E.F. Schumacher’s small masterpiece, “A Guide for the Perplexed”, which extensively discusses the question of maps, their modern distortion and their spiritual necessity, the opening sortie of which is summarized below:

    On a visit to Leningrad some years ago, I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “That is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.”

    It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show many things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity had been complete; and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.

    The maps I was given advised me that virtually all my ancestors, until quite recently, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions. … Not surprisingly, the more thoroughly acquainted we became with the details of the map, the more we absorbed what it showed and got used to the absence of the things it did not show, the more perplexed, unhappy, and cynical we became. The maps produced by modern materialistic Scientism leave all the questions that really matter unanswered; more than that, they deny the validity of the questions. …

    [T]he result is a degree of bewilderment and disorientation, particularly among the young, which can at any moment lead to the collapse of our civilization. “The true nihilism of today,”…“is reductionism. . . . Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness; today nihilism is camouflaged as ‘nothing-but-ness’. Human phenomena are thus turned into mere epiphenomena.” …

    The steadily advancing concentration of man’s scientific interest on “sciences of manipulation” has at least three very serious consequences.

    First, in the absence of sustained study of such “unscientific” questions as “What is the meaning and purpose of man’s existence?” and “What is good and what is evil?” and “What are man’s absolute rights and duties?” a civilization will necessarily and inescapably sink ever more deeply into anguish, despair and loss of freedom. …

    Second, the methodical restriction of scientific effort to the most external and material aspects of the Universe makes the world look so empty and meaningless that even those people who recognize the value and necessity of a “science of understanding” cannot resist the hypnotic power of the allegedly scientific picture presented to them and lose the courage as well as the inclination to consult, and profit from, the “wisdom tradition of mankind.” …

    Third, the higher powers of man, no longer being brought into play to produce the knowledge of wisdom, tend to atrophy and even disappear altogether. … While wealth may continue to increase, the quality of man himself declines. …

    It may conceivably be possible to live without churches; but it is not possible to live without religion, that is, without systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, higher levels than those of “ordinary life” with all its pleasure or pain, sensation, gratification, refinement or crudity—whatever it may be. ‘The modern experiment to live without religion has failed’, and once we have understood this, we know what our “postmodern” tasks really are.

  10. Sorry for the typo: I meant to say, "Narrow it is, indeed, and terribly *strait.*