Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'Nature, Man, and Woman' by Alan Watts (1958)

     Nature and spirituality are separated in Western Christian culture, which values ideas and is humiliated by dependence on nature. There is less of a dichotomy in Chinese Buddhist culture, which values direct experience.
     Christian philosophy studies God to the exclusion of nature. A culture has difficulty accepting sexuality when nature and spirituality are divorced, or when (as in the West) sexuality is the only area where spontaneity is valued. East and West both value celibacy, "as if the knowledge of God were an alternative to the knowledge of woman." The celibate man thinks of himself as God's property as a woman is considered her husband's property.
     Nature appears blank only insofar as we appear blank to our self-observation; it appears rebellious only insofar as we think we rule it. Its purposelessness should not distress us. Animals do not despair, as they know they are part of nature. We are like limbs of nature's body.
     Increasingly, people hate material things. They value the endpoints of abstract goals instead of what they encounter along the way. Matter is appreciated only for its monetary value.
     Only churches, not the outdoors, make the author feel Christian. He cannot identify the otherworldly, governing Christian God with the creator of this spontaneously growing world.
     We idealize nature as tranquil because we've lost touch with it. It is full of suffering. The promise of eternal joy in heaven makes no sense because feelings are necessarily impermanent. We can accept our revulsion of suffering without trying to escape suffering, which only intensifies pain. Focusing on uterine contractions may reveal them as less unpleasant than they feel when focusing on an assumption that childbirth hurts.
     Omniscience means being an object of cognition even to oneself and thus having "no inside." Omnipotence means having no spontaneity and thus being creatively paralyzed.
     Our bodies and the natural world are simple, but our cognition is too clumsy to understand them easily. Complexity is a function of the instrument of observation. Our brains divide and select information but it is all part of a whole.
     To say that God or spirit is "formless" means not that it is blank or hazy, but that its spontaneity resists logical ordering.
     Self-control prevents moral lapses, but if self-control comes from God, we have to ask who controls God.
     God and an afterlife may exist, but it is suffering and illusion to grasp or wish for them. Consciousness survives in the sense that each new being feels like "I."
     Sex is part of life and can be morally good or bad. Men often train themselves to love particular women, instead of the entire female sex, by practicing courtly love or delayed ejaculation.
     When sex has no goal, touch is never merely preliminary. One should not be distracted by desire for orgasm, as one should not over-think breathing while meditating. Sex should not be thought of as an "act" of purpose or deliberation; it is best when allowed to happen spontaneously.

Alan Watts. Nature, Man, and Woman. (1958) New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

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