Sunday, January 5, 2020

Chaos vs. Cosmos

Chaos vs. Cosmos

Greek khaos meant a ‘vast chasm, void', and later came to mean 'formlessness, disorder'.  

Greek kosmos meant 'the world' or 'nature' or 
‘order', thus also both 'the natural world' and 'the physical Universe', and then in a nearer sense 'the human (social) world'.  

For the Ancient Greeks, Khaos and Kosmos were logically in opposition:  Khaos was a kind of material nothingness, whereas kosmos was the more-or-less regular, observable world around us.  Entrepreneur Lou Marinoff ("The Middle Way", 2007) 
made this point for me and it is a useful framing tool:  On one side, the treacherous void - loneliness, poverty, death, anomie - and on the other side, the project of life - endless problems of self, people, pressures, work, and meaning.  

My own mental salvation has been informed not only by my own conclusions (drawn from years of muddling about and wondering "Why?"), but especially from insights of Stoicism (a philosophy worth investigating!).  In our time, when the American kosmos is reeling, rent by violent hubris and balkanization at every hand, it is important to realize that, historically and in fact, America has ALWAYS been splintered and internally antagonistic, from the beginning.  George Washington's own administration was plagued by rebellion; Lincoln was assassinated by a political malcontent; later, William McKinley.  Many cults have rejected matter-of-fact American life and tried to construct their own sub-cultures - the most successful, perhaps, being the Latter-Day Saints.  The USA, born from the idealistic Liberalism of the 1700s, has had to deal with natural human schismaticism; the anthropoid predilection for clubs and gangs, and the individual zoological urge to dominance.  And if the USA has been clique- and party-ridden from the start, at all levels, so has humanity, taken as a whole.  There are always exploiters; there are always malcontents; there are always gang-wars between rich and poor, male and female, staid and wild, absolutist and mediator, and so on.  Ideology and division and internecine resentment is the legacy of biology, psychology, and politics.  

And anyone who is going to try to live in our 21st-century republic should recognize that.  

So it's important to stop screaming for a minute and take a look at our Kosmos, forever full of schism and Khaos, of activism, daily living, and despair.  Life is not black and white, all or nothing, Good versus Bad; it's much more complex and murky.  Our understanding of life should take this into account; it should take all the nasty, antagonistic features of human variation into account: the frictions and the crimes.  They are nothing new - they are simply the flip side of a Kosmos.  In our time, they are especially amplified by our over-abundance of media, particularly now 
the Internet, and by our native impatience and our native vitality.   

The "Culture Wars" that we are promoting and suffering are a fact.  But in another sense, I propose that they are also an illusion - they are really not new.  And the ideological stances by which they're promoted are based just as much on fantasy as on real experiences.  

The "Culture Wars" are something to be reckoned with, but are not in fact something to be "solved".  In fact, they are just regular parts of life, natural frictions, concomitants of the human situation in history.  There is no Final Solution.  Anyone who claims that there is - that there is a "Key to happiness" - is selling something.  People are various, and their passions and follies are as well.  It's that simple.  Difference and other-ness are just parts of us being individuals - of each of us having perception, a brain, and innate limitations.  

What underlies the culture wars are Expectations:  each faction expects that life SHOULD be a certain way; and each faction finds someone to blame in an OTHER faction.  

It is in the general nature of people to expect success in living; this is part of our nature, part of the package, as it were. Even despite external adversities and internal failings, we retain certain implicit Egocentric Expectations, in particular:
(1) that I am good,
(2) that I deserve well, and
(3) that “life should work”.
These are natural enough to have - they are universal among people.  But they are feelings, not facts.  If you take them as a given, then you have misled yourself.  

Arising from these Expectations is a contradiction: how we FEEL the universe SHOULD be, on the one hand, and how it ACTUALLY turns out to be, on the other.  The feeling and the facts never gibe.  This translates into an opinion that life is broken, or that society is broken, or - still worse - that Other People are malevolently breaking it.  

This last conclusion -  that Other People are malevolently ruining life - is generally false; people do what seems good to them; self-interest, intelligent or foolish, is universal.  Never entertain a motive of Pure Maliciousness as an initial premise in living - it is a self-serving assertion, an excuse to blame others for our problems, a lie and a cowardice.  Still worse, it is historically the seed of fascism and genocide.  It is, in a word, a singularly villainous error.  Nazis blamed the Jews; Bolsheviks blamed the capitalists; Jews blamed the Arabs; et cetera.  Ideologies of absolutism are always an excuse for Theft and Murder.  

And yet these Expectations that translate into so much frustration and hysteria are universal, a part of the human operating system, as it were.  They may even be a mainspring of human life, something that we can't do without.  But they bring their own contradictions and problems with them.  How can we reconcile these feelings with the de facto nature of being human?  

There is a central principle in Stoicism sometimes called, simply, "the Rule", a measure to use in remaining rational:  that while a few things are actually up to us to control - what we choose to do, basically - most things are simply not up to us.  Health, wealth, obstructions, errors, disease, sex, pregnancy, poverty, bad luck, bosses, fashions, storms, car accidents, earthquakes, wars - such things are not up to us.  Some things we can have a bit of influence on - we can avoid wasting our health or our wealth; we can try to keep our friends and loved ones; we can exercise discretion and possibly make our situation better, but all the other things are thrust upon us: evils small or great that we must face, but which we have no control over.  

So, what is up to each individual?  Reason, intent, humility.  We can calculate, feel, weigh, and judge; we can cultivate an objective view of life to use as a reference, and we can avoid, reject, or minimize the passions that urge us to blame, hate, and kill - which is to say, avoid fury and violence and mania.  We can observe what really happens, put ourselves in others' shoes, reflect on how things happen - all instead of just fuming about why we didn't get what we wanted.  We can think twice, re-examine, and try to be factors of good in an antagonistic world.  We can step back when all the rest of the crowd is lusting after a leader with a Final Solution.  

None of this requires a God; it is the exercise of the God-like part that we all have within us - limited and unequally distributed, yes, but nonetheless universal.  And it is up to each of us to rein in our egocentric expectations, to exercise Reason, and to practice the Golden Rule - all with an eye to doing justice to others and to ourselves.  We all share a very imperfect world.  

Let's start with humility.  Dump "excellence" as an absolute requirement you make of self and others; allow that we are all both beast and intellect.  Life is not "All or nothing!" or "Black or white!" all the time.  Things are here dark, there light, and variously lit in shifting grays.  Do not let 'Perfect' become the enemy of 'Good'.  The point is NOT to "Win, win, win!", but to win enough to live well, and to do so as a good guy and not as a villain.  

Blaming others and seeking to Have it All - this is a delusional approach to being human; it is a step out of Kosmos into Khaos.  As people, we are meant to make do with the Kosmos, with the natural world - both conventional and unpredictable; to make do with the inevitable problems and people in our lives; and to countenance the big world as well as the nearer one of self and family.