Sunday 31 October 2021

The failed mission of Colin Wilson: why Non-Christian romanticism failed to persuade people to adopt more optimistic and positive metaphysical assumptions

From 1956 onwards; Colin Wilson identified the prevailing pessimism of the Western intellectual class - writers, visual artists, philosophers etc - and concluded it was rooted in negative basic assumptions concerning the nature of reality. 

Wilson went on to argue - I think convincingly - that if more positive and optimistic assumptions were instead adopted, then human life would be more enjoyable and worthwhile. Some other more or less influential writers said much the same - such as Abraham Maslow. 

This is a pragmatic argument - in the sense that it is not based upon the truth about the world (neither Wilson nor Maslow believed in the reality of God) but based on the assertion that life will be better if you believe so. The same type of argument was used by William James around 1900, Robert M Pirsig in 1974, or Richard Rorty.

But this did not happen. Pessimism prevailed. Mainstream basic metaphysical assumptions asserted (inter alia) that the universe, life and consciousness all happened by accident - and were not headed in any particular direction; the spiritual realm is a fiction, there is no soul, and death is annihilation.  

In the context of the already-existing Western culture; pragmatic arguments made no significant difference because believing and acting upon them they carried a penalty. First condescension and disdain - i.e. low status). Then material disadvantage; because professional success was optimized by conforming to the prevailing ideology, artistic and philosophical success to extending the successful trends. 

In a twentieth century context, when confronted with tough decisions - when long term possible benefit was blocked by immediate term disadvantage - pragmatic, un-rooted optimism was just too weak.

In other terms we can observe that the demonic powers were getting a grip on Western culture from even as early as the 19th century; and increasingly 'rigged' things such that pragmatic optimism was discouraged, yet unthinking, habitual pessimism prevailed. 

Pessimism was simply assumed and adopted spontaneously, while the onus of proof was on optimism. When the justification for optimism was merely pragmatic, then this was regarded as equivalent to admitting it was "made-up because I am too weak to face the bleakness of reality". 

Colin Wilson was cheerful by nature and largely immune to cultural trends, however this applies to few people. Most people will only be optimistic when they believe it is based on truth - on reality. 

Which means that when culture is more and more against us, we can only be optimistic when we believe in the reality of a loving personal God, and that joy and fulfillment are possible (and can be ours) outside of this mortal life and finite planet. 


Francis Berger said...

I still can't wrap my head around how Colin Wilson couldn't take the definitive step toward God during mortal life, especially when you consider his obvious admiration of religious thinkers, most notably, William Arkle. Nevertheless, perhaps he accepted the truth after mortal life ended, in much the same way you have argued Nietzsche likely accepted the truth. But who knows? Wilson was very committed to his assumptions in life.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

I have nothing to add to your thought-provoking meditations on "the curren situation", except that it's a joy to read something written in Real English with all its richness, instead of US-Americanese diversity-babble. I confess to re-reading your "Addicted to Distraction" book to remind myself of the horrors of "media".

Again, many thanks,


Bruce Charlton said...

@red - Thanks for your note.

@Frank - I suppose I can understand Colin Wilson's failure to take the last step, in the sense that it took me such a long time.

Also, I think that 'public figures' can on the one hand feel themselves trapped by their reputation and past work. There is a sense in which becoming a Christian would have invalidated a fair amount of CW's earlier work, and he seems to have been somebody who wanted to regard his entire span of work as *all* being important, all building towards something. That was the way he told his own story, anyway.

But more fundamentally, I don't think CW *thought* very hard, deep or or long in his later life - he was too busy churning-out potboilers to pay the bills for his excessive profligacy in buying wine, books and gramophone records. Consequently his work expanded rather than deepened.

Lucinda said...

I don't know anything about Colin Wilson, but I do think CS Lewis may have had it easier in being able to pinpoint a sympathize-able personal grudge against God at the death of his mother. I know my personal grudges against God have usually been embarrassingly immature and stupid.

John Fitzgerald said...

@Frank - I think Bruce is right in his assessment of why CW never became a Christian. I met him in 2008, and while he was a most generous host, a terrific raconteur, and undeniably a deep and serious thinker, I had the impression that his mind was going round in circles somewhat rather than forward in any purposeful sense. There was little sense of intellectual or spiritual risk. The edge had been blunted. 'His work expanded rather than deepened.' That's an apt way of putting it.

I also think he was way too deferent to science. Maybe it's a mid-twentieth century thing, I don't know. He was always at great pains in his writing to squeeze everything into a scientific framework. He would have been better off using a more spiritual paradigm. Science wasn't his friend ultimately. Religion could have been and should have been. We see this synergy leaping off the pages in Religion and the Rebel, his most potent and energetic work imo. Shame he didn't follow through on it. But even so he'll always be part of the circle of great British spiritual and philosophical lights for me.

Nice to think of CW this way on All Saints Day!

Faculty X said...

The big problem still unsolved was Faculty X has strong limitations -- he never developed a working method to duplicate in this world what he showed in his books like The Mind Parasites.

If in line with CW's work, the development of Faculty X should have in theory stimulated the ability to directly sense the truth in the Astral and Etheric planes. However it did not.

Some of the techniques Colin Wilson wrote as boosting development of human consciousness don't work in the way they do in his fiction: focusing on a pencil and relaxing or doing Husserl's phenomenology is not a method to expanded mind powers.

While philosophical and religious approaches have their place the lack of development of something like contemplative objective exploration of the other times and places and planes that Faculty X represented has not yet come to be.

His extensive writing always came back to the same great philosophical insights and yet no method was ever found. Nonetheless his optimism came from feeling one day it would inevitably be so.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX - Hello again!

I agree with your summary of CW. Faculty X will 'inevitably' be found as part of post mortal life in Heaven, I believe - for those who choose that path and destination.

I would say the lesson of failing to discover a technique for inducing FX is that it is part of a wider perspective and motivation - genuine raising of human consciousness comes from being motivated by love; and is part of our experience and learning upon earth.

In other words, in this mortal life, the reason for FX is mainly to teach us things we need to learn for our post-mortal life; the purpose of this life is for our learning, Not for us to exist in a constant state of raised consciousness.

After all this life is always temporary and may be very short - while what comes after is eternal: this life is extremely important, but it is not the most important thing.

Sean G. said...

Religion without belief is a flower in a vase, severed from it's roots. Beautiful for a short time before it withers and dies forever.