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In his excellent little book on Plotinus, Pierre Hadot quotes a lovely maxim of Blaise Pascal‘s, of which I was not previously aware: qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. Roughly: whoever wants to act like an angel, acts like a beast. The full quote from Pascal’s Pensées is: L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. Man is neither an angel nor a beast, and the problem is that whoever wants to act like an angel, acts like a beast.

The maxim is a good word of caution for everyone, but particularly when considering those traditions I have described as ascent: the ones that aim to transcend our particular human condition for a higher and better state of being. Plotinus himself is an excellent example of an Ascender, always striving to go beyond this particular world and reach unity with an ultimate cosmic Oneness. (Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality reads Plotinus very differently, as seeking an even balance between Ascent and Descent, but I’m not inclined to take this interpretation seriously. Brian Hines points out a number of flaws with it, and I am much more inclined to believe Hines than Wilber given that Wilber never provides a single citation or reference to Plotinus’s own writings, relying on a single secondary work.)

It seems to me that Pascal’s quote describes what I have called the bodhisattva complex – just putting it into Christian terms, and more eloquently than I did. The danger of striving to be better than human is that one winds up being worse. The surgeon who skips sleep in order to treat more patients winds up giving them each inadequate care. I have argued that passive aggression is in many respects exactly the same problem. One wishes and aspires to be a completely easy-going person, the kind who doesn’t get angry – here too, perhaps even the kind of person who has no needs. And that is what one pretends to be – but isn’t.

The attempt to transcend anger is an ascent as well – passions like anger are a key part of the particular human condition that the ascender seeks to transcend. The bodhisattva complex is an attempted denial of neediness and attachment, as passive aggression is of anger – and I might note that attachment and anger were the linked topics of my dissertation. Śāntideva seeks to take us out of both attachment and anger, while Martha Nussbaum defends their value.

Nussbaum explicitly rejects an attempted ascent to life of the angel or bodhisattva: “what my argument urges us to reject as incoherent is the aspiration to leave behind altogether the constitutive conditions of our humanity, and to seek for a life that is really the life of another sort of being — as if it were a higher and better life for us.” (Love’s Knowledge 379, emphasis in original) Her position is not far from the encounter theory of Emmanuel Lévinas and Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, which urges us to the humility of recognizing we are not God and never will be.

Not coincidentally, Nussbaum associates the attempt to transcend anger with passive aggression. In Upheavals of Thought she cites Jean Briggs’s ethnography of the Utku people, who (according to Briggs) see all anger as a sign of immaturity. But, say Briggs and Nussbaum, the Utku give their dogs “unusually severe punishments — not admitting to anger, and treating the punishment as a form of training.” So Nussbaum says Briggs “plausibly saw in the striking harshness a back-door outlet for emotions of anger and frustration that could not be acknowledged to one’s fellow humans.” (159-60) The Utku, on this account, engage in a serious form of passive aggression: they repress their anger, and therefore channel it in unhealthy ways. So too, when the Stoics attempt to transcend a selfishly needy dependence on external goods, they wind up pursuing a deeper narcissism:

We might say that the Stoic objector depicts the person who needs the goods of fortune as a type of pathological narcissist: incapable of respecting others because she is boundlessly needy and wrapped up in her own demands. But… we can turn the criticism around: it is actually the Stoic agent who more closely resembles the pathological narcissist, in her inability to mourn, her rage for control, her unwillingness to allow that other people may make demands that compromise the equanimity of the self. (Upheavals, 373)

The key question here is whether ascent itself, expressed here as the aspiration to transcend anger and neediness, is the problem. Should we accept our anger and our neediness, as Nussbaum advocates, in order to be true to our existence as it is? Or is the more appropriate conclusion to recognize that eliminating or reducing them is a more complicated task than it first appears?

Analytically, there is nothing in the bodhisattva complex or in passive aggression that requires us to choose the first option. We must be vigilant about our reactions, acknowledge what a long path we have ahead of us and not try to pretend we are any further on it than we already are. But that is not in itself a reason to get off the path entirely.

Plotinus, as described by Hadot, takes a very different approach from Nussbaum’s. His criticisms of the Gnostics address the issue I have described here: we are trapped in our bodies whether we like it or not, and it does us no good to pretend that we are not, as he thinks the Gnostics do. But for him this is hardly a call to embrace bodily life. Rather, one who possesses the highest virtue “leaves this kind of life [the life of a man, as defined by civic virtue] behind, and chooses another: the life of the gods.” But this ascent to godhood is a process, a struggle – one must not try to act as if one is already a god. Plotinus, on this reading, might well be suspicious of the bumper stickers that ask “What would Jesus do?” For the simple reason that we are not Jesus, and we should not try to act like him until we have become like him. The path is gradual, not sudden. And the path is treacherous – but that is not sufficient reason to avoid treading it.