Schelling’s Philosophy of Freedom

The following was originally written in 2012 as a chapter in a short book titled Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.  It feels relevant given our current political situation, so I’m sharing it again.


The Nature of Human Freedom

By Matthew T. Segall

The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”1 This is not the Kantian position that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind, but rather the inverse proposition that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”

Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.2

In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re- emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature itself.

The human freedom to decide to be good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial scission of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their enactment of original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical collaborator Fr. Baader:

it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.3

The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, as this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I am essentially nothing more and nothing less than the freedom to decide for good or evil. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom—which in fact is not mine at all. It is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.4 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin—the natural human propensity to do evil—is a necessary side- effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom of which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure the particularity of our own organism and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,

the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.5

Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:

the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.6

Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature itself. Further, because nature remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of itself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to re-create itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, for the human there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the eternal circulation of sacred marriage. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.

Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. He believed the state was ultimately an affront to free human beings and would eventually wither away as the human spirit awakened to its true potential. Schelling characterized secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”7 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno- science.8 The present military-industrial techno-capitalist empire can thus be said to be predicated upon the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.9 After all, evil doers can quickly be destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric chemicals, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.

Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day—untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self- grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s hubristic elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:

If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.10

It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the instrumental solutions and superficial palliatives of modern life. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,

to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.11

Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.12 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there is no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”13 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which in the consumer capitalist context offer an untold number of options for temporary escapist diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.14

Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.15 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.16 Though an aging Schelling was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels,17 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.18 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”19 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least ensure that “the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.”20 Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.21

From Schelling’s perspective, true human salvation does not lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil becomes real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”22 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”23 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.

By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.24 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”25 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.26

Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.27 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:

the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.28

While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.29 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.

This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.30

Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological grounds of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by members of democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to techno-capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.31

 

Footnotes

1 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.

2 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.

3 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.

4 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.

5 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47.

6 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.

7 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.

8 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.

9 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.

10 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.

11 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.

12 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

13 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181

14 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

15 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.

16 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.

17 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.

18 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.

19 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.

20 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.

21 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.

22 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

23 Matthew 5:39.

24 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.

25 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

26 John 3:5.

27 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.

28 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.

29 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.

30 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.

31 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.

Slavery and Capitalism in America

I’m about halfway through The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) by Edward Baptist.

edwardbaptist-thehalf

Baptist’s book embeds an economic history of post-revolutionary America in the personal stories of slaves. He brings into question the still dominant version of American history, “the half that has ever been told,” which argues that slavery was an old world anomaly set apart from the rest of the early nation’s growing capitalist economy. “Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventions,” writes Baptist, “but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor” (xviii). Painting slavery as somehow outside the modern capitalist system–more a drag than a boost to America’s young economy–meant that none of the massive quantities of wealth accumulated as a result of the cotton trade could be claimed to be owed to African Americans.

Many white historians have long argued that slave labor was less efficient than paid labor, and that market forces made its eventual demise inevitable. The evils of slavery, they argue, are reducible to the denial of liberal subjectivity to enslaved African Americans. “Surely,” writes Baptist, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen–even elect one of them president–to make amends” (xix).

journey-to-the-coast

By tracing the westward expansion of US borders from the 1780s to 1860,  Baptist unveils a more troubling reality. As the borders of the young nation expanded and its economy boomed, so, too, did the slave industry. From the time the Revolutionary War ended to the start of the Civil War 80 years later, America’s slave population quintupled. During the same time period, enslavers marched about 1 million men, women, and children chained in heavy iron coffles hundreds of miles southwest from the old slave states to the new frontier states (xxiii). US cotton exports soared after white enslavers developed elaborate methods of torture to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people (e.g., one lash for every pound a slave fell short of his or her daily quota). Slave labor thus “rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market” (xxi).

“What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom” (130-131).

In 1800 the US exported fewer than 200,000 bales of cotton per year (a bale is a compressed box of cotton weighing about 450 pounds). By 1860, exports had skyrocketed to 4 million bales (1 billion 800 million pounds) per year, such that 75% of the cotton imported by Britain’s textile mills was being picked by slaves in American labor camps. 19th century African American slaves worked the land of their owners to produce massive amounts of the most important raw material powering the industrial revolution. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that African Americans carried as much economic weight as steam engines during the same timeframe.

“Both South and North depended on slavery’s expansion. The products generated form the possibilities of co-exploitation explain much of the nation’s astonishing rise to power in the 19th century. Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the US had grown into both an empire and a world economic power–the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world–all built on the back of cotton” (413).

Baptist’s historical research can serve an emancipatory role in the present. Along with reminding us of the collective need to address the historical trauma of slavery, Baptist’s book returns our attention to the inherent contradictions of the still expanding global capitalist market. Capitalism is an economic model predicated upon the exploitation of labor and land so as to “generate” (that is, steal) a monetary profit. In reality, capitalism generates nothing but (unequally distributed and thus sociopolitically powerful) symbols. All real physical generation is done by Gaia and her organisms. Despite neoliberal fantasies, the soul’s salvation cannot be achieved by transforming all bodies into commodities, by giving everything on earth a price tag and reducing it through one innovative financial instrument or another into a universal quantitative value so that it can be traded on the global market to the highest bidder. The generativity of earth and her creatures is inversely proportional to the productivity of the global marketplace. As GDP goes up, Gaia’s carrying capacity goes down. This contradiction in capitalism is referred to by ecomarxists as a “metabolic rift.”

That capitalism is inherently exploitative is clear. It was not the inherent logic of the market that ended slavery, but the agonizingly slow evolution of the American conscience. If anything, the capitalist profit-motive was the primary engine driving the intensification of slavery during the 19th century.

What is not clear is where we are to go from here. The first step must be refusing the nihilistic justification of capitalism offered by neoliberalism (that it is the best we can hope for given the greed and selfishness inherent to “human nature”). We have not always been capitalists. We need to fight against the inertia of the present and continue struggling to unleash the latent potentials of our species, such as our capacity for justice. “Never forget,” Cornel West reminds us, “that justice is what love looks like in public.”

With ecological catastrophe looming, economic instability as the new norm, and the political sphere reaching a boiling point, the path forward is fraught with difficulty. References to “love” are apt to feel sentimental. Yet it may be that only a miracle can save us now. “Miracles do happen,” Whitehead acknowledged; “but it is unwise to expect them.”

The Ecology of Capitalism

This post is largely in response to this interview with the ecological Marxist John Bellamy Foster. Foster spends most of his time responding to criticisms of his work by Jason W. Moore.

I haven’t read Moore’s work, so I’m not sure whether the misunderstanding of Latour arose with him or with Foster’s characterization of the latters “constructionism” in the interview. Moore and/or Foster seem to reduce Latour to a social constructionist who thinks “nature is subsumed within society,” as Foster put it. I interpret Latour’s ontology through Whitehead’s, which is neither naively monist nor dualist, but pluralist. Not “neutral monism” but creative process, the many becoming one and being increased by one. In proper dialectical fashion, seems to me that Foster and the position he is critiquing need to be overcome. Yes, capitalist society can be distinguished from the earth metabolism for the purposes of analysis; but ultimately isn’t capitalist society’s metabolic rift with earth only comprehensible as a kind of cancerous tumor or autoimmune disease? Our species wasn’t parachuted in from a higher dimension so far as I know; rather, we grew out of geochemistry. The Whiteheadian trick, as I see it, is to push talk of “social construction” all the way down, such that agency and value are understood to permeate cosmogenesis rather than existing exclusively within the human domain. Reality is socially constructed by collective agencies operating at all levels. Latour’s modes of existence are important here as descriptions of different ways that humans and our closest non-human companions construct reality. Politics is one way humans have found to compose and decompose common worlds. Economics is another (as are science, religion, art, etc.). Translating between the modes happens all the time but is never complete. The modes are irreducible one to the other. No one mode can “subsume” the others. And yet it seems to many of us that “capitalism”–that is, the privatization of everything from healthcare and education to prisons and war, along with the externalization of hidden costs on people and earth–presents an existential threat, that it appears to be subsuming everything around it, converting the community of life on earth into use-and-dispose consumables for the sake of accumulating digits in some offshore bank account. Others disagree. It all depends on the signifier “capitalism,” which I admit verges on reification in some Marxist discourse.

For better or worse, actually existing capitalism is way ahead of our attempts to theorize about it. This makes political action in relation to it almost impossible. Indeed, more and more it seems like capitalism has gained a monopoly on possibility. Bernie’s “movement” (we will see in the next several months and longer if it deserves that name) may be an example of a new possibility for political action. In his live webcast last night, Bernie said:

In a democratic civilized society, government must play an enormously important role in protecting all of us and our planet. But in order for government to work efficiently and effectively, we need to attract great and dedicated people from all walks of life. We need people who are dedicated to public service and can provide the services we need in a high quality and efficient way.

Some of my more libertarian friends have been mocking this statement. It is hard to deny that magnifying the reach of agencies that operate in the style of the TSA and the DMV into our everyday lives is pretty frightening.  But still, I agree with Bernie that public projects are where we should be pouring our energy right now. Yes, government as it currently operates is almost always less efficient than the “free market,” but maybe a shift in priorities that drew more capable people into public office would improve the situation. We need to reverse the self-fulfilling prophecy that is draining our government at local, state, and federal levels of capable, honest people who cynically shun politics, because by doing so they are allowing that government to be taken over by increasingly incompetent and corrupt egomaniacs.

Some argue that “capitalism” will transform itself faster than government could ever hope to “fix it.” Maybe. But I worry that allowing the private sphere to subsume the public will leave our communities with little legal protection from the sorts of social and ecological injustices that capitalism has thrived upon (e.g., cotton slavery, fossil fuel industry, etc.). Shrinking the power of government and privatizing everything is only going to open the door to racist, nativist regression and further destroy ecosystems, since the metabolic forces that shape these social and ecological realities do not respect the abstract borders of our maps or the metaphysics of our money. As the #Occupy movement taught us, the concepts of “debt” and “ownership” need to be thoroughly reevaluated.

CIIS Commencement Speech 5/22

Thank you, President Subbiondo. Thanks also to our Academic Vice President Judie Wexler, to our honorary degree recipients Angela Davis and Josef Brinckmann, and to all CIIS faculty and staff for the work you have done to make this day possible for me and for my fellow graduates.

I am a philosopher, which is not to say that I know the answer to every question, but that I tend to ask what some people may think of as annoyingly obvious questions. If you don’t also happen to have the philosophical itch, I hope you will forgive me for asking the following: What is a university?What are we doing here today, “graduating” from one? I’ll offer the simplest answer I can think of: a university is a community of learning, and we, as university graduates, are supposed to be learned to some degree or another.

Now, unfortunately, university education, especially in the humanities, is increasingly under threat in our country. I’ll let the great philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who teaches at the University of Chicago) set the scene: “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”

Our profit-driven economic system–the industrial growth society–has decided that science, technology, and engineering alone should shape the future (with barely a feigned nod to art, culture, wisdom, or a thorough grasp of history). As the late Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah put it, contemporary American universities, while they may on rare occasions still function as “instruments in the class struggle,” are increasingly being transformed into “wholesale knowledge outlets for consumer society.” The entire educational system is being re-designed to produce efficient, responsible corporate or state worker-consumers. In our present economy, we are told to seek a university education, not for culture or learning, not to become more sensitive human beings, but for job preparation. Even at CIIS, this reality cannot be ignored. We need jobs to survive, to eat, to pay rent, after all.

But for those of us who chose to come to CIIS, I believe something deeper than mere survival is motivating us. We came here to learn how to thrive; to learn how to heal the human psyche and body; to learn to philosophize; to learn the wisdom of the world’s various religions, spiritual paths, and indigenous ways of knowing; to learn about present possibilities for social and institutional change.

I might stop there, having basically read the names of the degrees on the diplomas that we are receiving today. But I want to probe a bit deeper for a moment. What is beneath these specializations? What is university learning really about at, well, the most universal level? I want to suggest that at the deepest level and in the most general sense, a university should help each human being find their unique role not only in society at this particular historical juncture, not only their profession in this particular job market, but their role in the ongoing evolution of the community of life on earth, 4 billion years in the making. The purpose of the university is to prepare us for life in the Universe, itself 14 billion years in the making. Universities should help orient us and to encourage us to become creative participants in this wondrous miracle we call existence. Yes, yes, earning a living is also important. But as the late geologian Thomas Berry suggested (and I paraphrase), “universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in a declining [industrial civilization,] or whether they will begin educating students for [what we hope is an emerging ecological civilization].”

CIIS is one of the few educational organizations to have taken the evolutionary crisis Berry is pointing to seriously. It has decided to be (and I quote from the mission statement): a “university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth.” Such an unorthodox mission has not made it easy for this non-profit university to survive in an educational marketplace offering more prestige, technical training, and higher salary expectations. At several points going back to the founding in the 1950s of CIIS’s earlier institutional incarnation (the American Academy of Asian Studies) by the international trader Louis Gainsborough, this university has needed the generous philanthropic support of the business community to continue and expand its activities. The Academy’s dean in the early days, the well-known philosopher and mystic Alan Watts, reported that Gainsborough’s initial vision for the school was as an “information service” on Indian and Chinese religions. Watts, of course, made it clear that he and the other founding faculty (including Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Judith Tyberg) “had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service.” “We were concerned,” Watts sayswith the practical transformation of human consciousness.”

I believe the transformation of human consciousness is still the underlying concern of CIIS’s educational efforts. Jobs are important, yes. But the jobs that CIIS graduates want to work at to a large extent do not yet exist. The political parties that graduates of CIIS want to vote for do not yet exist. The world that graduates of CIIS want does not yet exist.Our role as graduates of this university is to play some part, small or large, mediocre or monumental, in the creation of new worlds. We don’t yet know what the future of life on this planet will look like, which is why I’ve pluralized “world.” We are called to participate with one another in the creation of newworlds. We should experiment with as many new world-formations and forms of consciousness as we can imagine, because the way forward is uncertain. Some of us may create something beautiful and enduring. Some of us may fail. If we are honest with ourselves, the entire human species may fail in its response to the present social and ecological crises. I don’t know, but I remain hopeful that, as the Indian yogi and integral philosopher Sri Aurobindo said, “By our stumbling, the world is perfected.”

I will leave you with a challenge. It is a challenge for my fellow graduates and for myself. I challenge us to continue to be of service to the evolution of this nation, of our species, of all species, and ultimately of the Universe itself. I challenge us, in whatever form our work in the world takes, to remain awake and engaged in the task of planetary transformation, to refuse to lose ourselves in the somnambulance of consumer culture. We cannot be sure where this journey will lead. All we can be sure of is our own intentions as active participants in the adventure. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing here? And we must never stop asking it. Is it merely to survive? To pay the bills? To play the lotto and strike it rich? I don’t believe so. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “The task of a university is the creation of the future.” As university graduates, this is now our task.

In defense of other possibilities…

I always try to ration myself early in the month since I only get 10 free articles, but Charles Blow’s op-ed in the New York Times this morning–“A Trump-Sanders Coalition? Nah”–seemed worth the read.

Blow rightly points out why Trump’s campaign manager is sorely mistaken about the prospects of winning over Bernie’s supporters in the general election. It’s not going to happen. Yes, there is a shared distrust of Hillary. But the similarities end there.

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But Blow is also missing the point. Bernie’s support is not coming from people who think the political system is broken. The political system is actually functioning exactly as it has been designed to function. Bernie’s supporters are angry because democracy has been replaced by neoliberal capitalism. Voting has thus been reduced to another consumer choice based on brand identity. The two-party system is designed to protect the super wealthy from the threat of growing class consciousness. The two major parties do everything they can to prevent large sectors of the population from thinking about the real causes of the socioeconomic imbalances in our system and instead find ways to divide up the electorate based on identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Not that there are not injustices that need our attention in these areas (Trump’s rise shows we have lots of work to do on this front). But by continuing to allow the oligarchs to frame our political process for us, we remain vulnerable to the temptation to continue fighting with one another over the table scraps they throw us. Identity politics has played an important part in the process of liberation for marginalized peoples, but thus far this liberation has only been allowed to unfold in the framework set by neoliberal capitalism. In other words, the civil rights movements for women and for black, gay, and lesbian people have succeeded in securing many of the legal protections afforded white men (again, more work remains on the cultural front). But the framework these liberatory movements have unfolded within assures that the most that can be achieved is equal status as a wage-earning consumer within the capitalist profit-machine. I recognize that my positionality as a white male makes it perhaps all too easy for me to say this, and I welcome other perspectives to help me see my blind spots, but it seems to me that at this point in the game we need to begin recognizing the various identities we employ to brand ourselves are a means of political transformation, rather than an end. If they are an end in themselves, then the transformational process can only produce further social fragmentation among the 99%, thus further inhibiting our collective ability to overthrow oligarchy. Does equality mean equal right to work 60 hours a week for stagnant wages so we can all afford to lease a car, pay rent, and send our kids to college to become indentured servants to banks for the rest of their lives? Maybe we’ve forgotten what individual freedom and social flourishing really mean.

There is more at stake in this election than the mainstream media’s talking heads are allowed to let on. What does the next century hold in store for America? Capitalism’s fantasy of never-ending economic growth is being severely challenged by the ecological and social crises. Back when capitalism was first establishing itself, colonial theft of unspoiled land and labor from non-Europeans made it seem like profits would never end. In the 20th century, capital relied upon the energy produced by fossil fuel to replace all that emancipated slave labor (though of course it still depends upon the wage-slavery of large sectors of the “developing” world). But now the petroleum interval is ending, the third-world is demanding higher wages, and the Earth is reminding us that its carrying capacity is not unlimited. From this point forward, capitalism can only secure growth by making sure 99% of us remain insecure and continue to bicker at one another about “family values.” Divide and conquer: it is the oldest ruling class strategy for domination in the book. The oligarchy is counting on us to continue believing that there are no economically viable alternatives to capitalism.

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Indonesian demonstrators carry an effigy of the earth as they parade in a rally in Surabaya in Indonesia’s eastern Java island to mark the World Earth Day on April 22, 2013.

In reality, there has never been a better opportunity to fundamentally transform the economic model that has gotten us into this social and ecological crisis. Whether we look to the secular approach of Naomi Klein or the spiritual approach of Pope Francis for this transformation, let us not forget that there is hope on multiple fronts.