In 1876 the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche penned these words:
If the doctrine of sovereign becoming; the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly – are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification, and greed, [then finally] falls apart and ceases to be a people. In its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of the non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future.
In numerous citations scattered throughout Nietzsche’s corpus the philosopher proved uncannily prophetic. This citation is no exception. In it he speaks about the effects Darwinism would have upon humanity, as the teaching of evolution became more widely known. He warned that rampant egoism would prevail if we came to understand ourselves as arising from the swamp rather than having a transcendent origin. It is hard to debate the fact that we now live in an age in which rampant egoism is ascending. Was Nietzsche right? Is this rampant egoism attributable to the loss of belief in a transcendent origin? Let us look at this question from the perspective of the mystics.
As mentioned in my previous post (see “What Is Faith?”) the mystics believe that we have both a lower nature and a higher nature; that we are both physical and spiritual beings (i.e., we have a transcendent origin). The lower (physical) nature operates through the ego. The higher (spiritual) nature manifests Divine virtues. Hence, the aim of the spiritual journey is the transformation of being, from the dominance of lower (physical) nature to higher (spiritual) nature. Complete transformation of being is the state in which the ego, eventually free from the influence of lower (physical) nature becomes the vehicle for the manifestation of Divine virtues, e.g., compassion, forgiveness, charity… unconditional love.
From the point of view of the mystics then, if we abandon belief in our higher (spiritual) nature there is no transformation of being to be had. There is no motivation, let alone possibility of becoming anything other than what we already find ourselves to be. We shall forever be dominated by our lower (physical) nature, trapped in the egoic state, which has no other agenda than personal survival. The ego thus left to rule, Divine virtues lay dormant while egoic tendencies dominate: self-centeredness, instinctual gratification, the use of the other (people, animals, and natural resources) as means to personal ends, etc. Does this mean that Nietzsche was right, that rampant egoism is attributable to the loss of belief in a transcendent origin?
Not entirely, not even from the mystics’ point of view. Mystics have always understood the transformation of being to be a great struggle; the vast majority of people have always served their lower (physical) nature in lieu of their higher (spiritual) nature (“One cannot serve both God and mammon,” taught Jesus). Our modern age is somewhat exceptional, however, in that the tendencies of the lower nature are exacerbated in a world in which capitalism and materialism are held up as evidence of one’s personal, even existential worth (that mammon thing again…). In sum, the loss of belief in our transcendent origins may contribute to the rampant egoism we see in today’s world but capitalism and materialism (and other factors) also contribute to this phenomenon. It’s a complex situation...
While it is not a panacea, we do need to return to belief in a transcendent origin in order to help counteract rampant egoism. This belief is not rooted in wishful thinking nor is it a psychological strategy conjured up simply to counteract rampant egoism. Rather, it is a known truth rooted in the mystics’ direct experience of our essential nature. We are, the mystics tell us, sparks of the Divine and being such, our essential nature partakes of Divine virtues: compassion, forgiveness, charity… unconditional love.
By returning to belief in a transcendent origin we can resume the project of the transformation of being, a project jettisoned with the rise of Darwinism. This is what we modern mystics have to offer our world, namely, the possibility of becoming other than what already find ourselves to be. It is our task, even our destiny to become vehicles for the manifestation of Divine virtues, as the Shvetashvatara Upanishad tells us:
“Hear, O children of immortal bliss!
You are born to be united with the Lord.”