It seems to me that the concepts of ascent and descent allow relatively easily for intermediate positions between them, compromises that attempt at a synthesis. I suspect that in this respect they are different from the related binary of intimacy and integrity. Thomas Kasulis tries to argue that intimacy and integrity are incommensurable – one may experience elements of each at once, but it is difficult to take a moderate position between them, let alone to establish a synthesis. I am not convinced that Kasulis is right about this, but I do think that at least middle grounds on intimacy and integrity are harder to establish than on ascent and descent.
For relatively few seek the pure transcendence of the Yoga Sūtras, abiding in a pure universality outside the changing world. It is an uncompromising and drastic ascent that demands we act and be with a higher universal, leaving the particulars of the world behind us. Jain monks, following a similar path, deliberately renounce dependence to all particulars up to and including food – they often end their lives through sallekhanā or santhara, intentional slow starvation. This high level of ascent is not only Indian; to the extent I understand them, the Gnostics had a similar view of the world as a place of suffering to be transcended. The Gnostic-influenced Augustine has strong elements of it as well: this world, with its sin and sorrow, is a preparation for the better heaven to come.
But our alternative to the pure Jaina or Yogic ascent does not have to mean a Nussbaumian descending embrace of all worldly particulars and their imperfection. Rather than acting and being in the universal, one could merely feel in it, ascend at the level of feeling: be a monk on the inside but a normal householder on the outside, be in the world but not of it. This is the middle ground that Mark Berkson had suggested in response to my dissertation – one shared, he thought, by the Bhagavad Gītā, the Zen oxherding pictures and some Sufi texts. (One might perhaps even include Zhuangzi). I criticized Berkson on the grounds that this alternative sounded like a mere compromise and not a synthesis; its mere middleness was not enough to make it right. That doesn’t mean that such an approach couldn’t be a synthesis; only that we must ensure the reasons are there to take it as such, to be sure that it is the best of both worlds and not the worst.
There is another kind of ascent still more modest than that – in which one merely thinks with the universal, rather than feeling or being with it. This, I think, is the level at which one finds the more worldly Christianity of a Thomas Aquinas — and of most Jewish thinkers, I suspect, and also of Hegel and Schelling. Here the physical world of particulars, not a transcendent universal realm or self beyond it, is the centre stage of human existence. But it is not the same as an immanent descent that sees the particulars as all there is. When properly viewed, one sees that world, and one’s self within it, as a manifestation of the universal – which is typically but not always identified as God – and that changes one’s understanding of the nature of that world. Alasdair MacIntyre, articulating how the Muslim thinker ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) might have responded to atheists, has an excellent explanation of why this view makes such a difference from an atheism that denies that universal:
From [atheists’] standpoint a theist is someone who believes in just one more being than they do and who therefore has the responsibility for justifying her or his belief in this extra entity. But from the standpoint of the theist this is already to have misconceived both God and theistic belief in God. To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything. (God, Philosophy, Universities p. 47)
In this case ascent remains at the level of understanding. One could say that it is only metaphysical and not ethical, but it is not quite that, for it informs one’s ethics. Something like ibn Sīnā’s view is required, for example, to take seriously an ethics based on “natural law“. (The idea of natural law is generally taken to originate with Aristotle, one of ibn Sīnā’s key influences, and is most strongly associated with ibn Sīnā’s follower Thomas Aquinas.)
There is a third kind of intermediate ascent which could theoretically work well with the second, but has historically less often been linked to it. That is the path of the householder in a renunciate tradition – the lay Jain or Buddhist. Here, one acknowledges a serious monastic ascent as the highest and best way of life and devotes significant time and effort to supporting those who do, but does not partake of it oneself.
I am of course referring here to the idea behind householding in these traditions. Since supporting monks is the culturally approved way to live the household life in typical Jain and Buddhist societies, many householders will practise this way to gain social approval without believing the monastic life is the best – just as young Thai men will often become monks for a summer solely in order to become more marriageable. I don’t count them as ascenders; they would prefer to lead a purely descended life, and would do so if they lived somewhere it was convenient. The householders I am talking about are those who believe in what they are doing for the reasons their traditions prescribe.
Such an approach strikes me as a chastened intellectualist one. The monastic path is a hard and demanding one (that is sort of the point). And even if one sees it as the best path a human being could follow, one may well perceive oneself as not good enough to follow it. One is all too aware of one’s own weakness and frailty, aware that who wants to act like an angel acts like a beast – and so one does not try to act like an angel oneself, for fear the results would be beastly. One leaves the quest for the highest good to others, and works to enable them to find it.
I note that the second and third kinds of intermediate ascent have come in historical forms that are not a comfortable fit with each other. Most notably the second variety, thinking with the universal, tends to take nature as normative in some way, to follow natural law – which in turn leads to a glorification of family and childrearing as characteristically natural human practices. The third variety, by contrast, idealizes a monastic rejection of the family. But perhaps this might just be to say that the second is an intermediate intimacy ascent, and the third an intermediate integrity ascent.
I will be taking a break from blogging next month, because of a family medical issue and for the holidays. Enjoy any holidays you celebrate, and I’ll see you in the New Year.