This essay was partly inspired by the recent presidential election in the United States. It was an extremely strange election, one that presented us with the picture of a number of groups waging all-out war on their mental images of other groups, on phantasms that gave the definite impression of having departed further from reality than any we’ve seen for a long time. This is one necessary outcome of the mental illness known as ideological thinking. As soon as you grant greater authority to an ideology that you’ve adopted, or that’s been imposed on you, than to your own experience, or to the collective experience of the human race over many millennia, you have entered a condition of socio-political insanity. Suggestions as to how to cure this dangerous malady appear below.
A bully sees everyone who’s not a bully as a weakling. A coward sees a person with a strong character as a bully, or at least a potential one. A person eaten up with intellectual pride sees a loving person as a flabby sentimentalist. A materialistic person sees an intellectual as someone living in an “ivory tower”. An obsessively moralistic person sees an easygoing person as lax and degenerate. An amoral person sees anyone with moral principles as “judgmental”. A sentimentalist sees all intellectuals as cruel and cold-hearted. A swindler sees an honest person as foolish and naïve. A hard-hearted individual sees a compassionate person as nothing but a “bleeding heart”. A hypocrite thinks that everyone else must be a hypocrite like he is. A cold, calculating manipulator sees anyone who would never descend to such manipulation because he respects other people as either a hypocrite or a fool. An introverted narcissist sees a more extraverted person as brassy and shallow. An extraverted narcissist sees a more introverted person as either a social coward or a secret snob, etc., etc., etc.
The effect of these false and self-serving opinions is that any notion of a strong person who isn’t interested in dominating others, of a person whose love is inseparable from discipline and intelligence, of a sage who possesses real practical wisdom, of a friendly and gregarious person who isn’t addicted to self-indulgence, of a moral person who is more interested in rectifying his own faults than searching for faults in others, of an intellectual with real empathy and emotional understanding, of an honest person who understands what dishonesty is and knows how to protect himself from it, of a compassionate person who is not dominated by sentimental pity, of a “straight” person who is no more nor less than what he shows himself to be, of an intelligent person who has no desire to use his intelligence to gain advantage over others, of a self-contained person who is perfectly content not to draw attention to himself, etc., etc.—all these ideas of what it is to be a human being disappear from our collective mythology. The upshot is that we begin to see ourselves more or less as demons living in the society of other demons, and can no longer easily imagine any way of acting other than the way demons act. This is how human society is transformed into a collective Hell.
What is the origin of these false opinions and delusions? In the last analysis, every one of them stems from the same thing: the disastrous fact that we no longer know what a human being is.
We believe—because we are taught—that a human being is an animal, a machine, an automaton controlled by unconscious obsessions and complexes, an organism designed by deoxyribonucleic acid to create and propagate more deoxyribonucleic acid, a function of class, a function of race, a function of genetics, a function of gender, a function of advertising, a function of social conditioning, a function of past trauma, a function of systematic social engineering, a function of technological society, a function of environmental influences, a function of brain chemistry. But we are wrong: a human being—the sort of creature we used to think of as having an inalienable right to something called human dignity—is none of these things: a human being is a microcosm; an axial being; the locus-of-manifestation for the Imago Dei; the bearer of the Trust; the divinely-appointed steward of creation; the human face of the Names of God on earth. This used to be so obvious that we had no words for it, nor did we need any. It is now so forgotten that all the words in the world can’t make us remember it.
If we really knew this, like we once did—if we knew that the Presence of God blazes in the human heart like the Sun—then we would see the integral, authentic, harmonious, balanced, virtuous aspects of the human character as so many rays of that Sun, shining into, and imprinting themselves upon, all the multiple facets and variations of our social interaction, so as to constitute the universally-recognized norms of these many human worlds. If we knew integrity, we could recognize disintegration. If we knew authenticity, we could discern deception. If we knew virtue, we could detect degeneracy. If we knew harmony, we could sense discord. If we knew balance, we could evaluate chaos. If we truly understood these things we would possess the universal Criterion, the one that caused Protagoras to declare that “man is the measure of all things.” But we cannot know integrity, authenticity, harmony, balance and virtue, we cannot know that man is the measure of all things, unless we first know that God is the measure of man. He is the One Who possesses our eternal design, the integral human form that slipped from our consciousness when we ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thereby obtained both the vain, prideful knowledge of ourselves as good and others as evil, and the bitter, envious knowledge of ourselves as evil and others as good—much better than they deserve to be, which is why they need to be torn down so there can be “a level playing-field”.
So what is the way out of this collective human Hell—the one that led Jean-Paul Sartre to say, “Hell is other people”? The way out is for us to stop defining ourselves according to the criterion of “other people”. If we get our DNA from our ancestors not our contemporaries, can’t we mold our characters on true and traditional principles rather than ephemeral social norms? The way out is for us to stop trying to conform ourselves to collective stereotypes, and to do so as quickly as possible so we can let God create us again, as we were in the beginning: “Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth” [traditional Catholic prayer, based on the Psalms]. Nimrod, in the Book of Genesis, started building a Tower he hoped would reach to Heaven, till God stopped him in his tracks. He did this to give Nimrod a chance to remember that he was that Tower already. “Unless the Lord build the House, they labor in vain who build it” [Psalm 127]. But Nimrod did not remember—and we in our own time have forgotten even what little he knew. That’s why our own towers are even taller than Nimrod’s was, and less stable than his, and a lot uglier: They forgot God, says the Qur’an, so God caused them to forget themselves [59:19].
The work is only to remember, to pray to God as if you saw Him, because even if you don’t see Him, He sees you [hadith of Bukhari and Muslim]. What we see is biased; even the saint still has the faint, tiny glimmer of a bias in him (and knows it—that’s what makes him a saint). But God sees things as they are. Only He really knows who’s who and what’s what, so it’s best to leave the decision up to Him. We may issue our decree, and even manage to enforce it, but we can never rest in it; there is no rest for us except in God’s decree. His Eye is the farmer’s plow and the mason’s hammer; He creates what He sees simply by seeing it. In the depth of His Will, and our submission to it, lies the end of all conflict—the “Peace that passeth understanding” [Philippians 4:7]. Enfolded in that Peace, we understand that all existing things, including ourselves, do not exist as we see them, only as He sees them. Knowing this, we can free our self-imagined selves from the imagined hell represented by “other people”, and those other people from the hell of our own social ideologies, our own abject failure to achieve omnipotence and omniscience and eternal justification; we can learn how to receive “the rain that falls on the just and the unjust” [Matthew 4:45]. While we are occupied only with measuring our imagined selves against our real selves, our self-created mythic existences against our true and eternal forms in the mind of God, we will have neither the space nor the time to measure others—only to salute them.
Mankind were but one community; then they differed; and had it not been for a word that had already gone forth from thy Lord it had been judged between them in respect of that wherein they differ. [Qur’an 10:19]
The word that had already gone forth from thy Lord was the fitrah, the Primordial Adamic Human Nature, the original revelation of God to man—and as man. As soon as we recognize this fitrah in ourselves, we gain the ability to see it in others. Our socio-political insanity is cured. Ideological thinking comes to an end.