Saturday, June 23, 2018

Spirit vs. matter: The mechanistic phase

In "the Cartesian period," Thomas Berry wrote, human imagination disenchanted the world and entered "a mechanistic phase" in which "the divine and the human were taken away from intimate presence to the natural world," and "the inner principle of life in natural beings was taken away". Berry said: "If this has proved to be enormously effective in its short-term achievements, it has been disastrous in its long-term consequences."

"[T]he full consequences of this [mind/body] dichotomy" became apparent in the nineteeth century, said Rollo May. "Psychologically, reason became separated from 'emotion' and 'will,'" such that "reason was supposed to give the answer to any problem, will power was supposed to put it into effect, and emotions — well, they generally got in the way, and could best be repressed." Thus, contrary to previous eras: "When people today use the term ["reason"] they almost always imply a splitting of the personality. They ask in one form or another: "Should I follow reason or give way to sensual passions and needs or be faithful to my ethical duty?"

Alan Watts wrote in the Preface to Nature, Man and Woman: "Underlying all these dualities there seems to be a basic division of opinion about those two great poles of human thought, spirit and nature. Some people stand plainly 'for' one and "against" the other. Some stand mainly for one but give the other a subordinate role. Others attempt to bring the two together, though human thinking moves in such firm ruts that it usually turns out that they have settled inadvertently for one or the other." And in his Introduction: "At the same time, even from the most coldly intellectual point of view, it becomes clearer and clearer that we do not live in a divided world. The harsh divisions of spirit and nature, mind and body, subject and object, controller and controlled are seen more and more to be awkward conventions of language." Should we use our mental abilities to dominate the world? Watts comments, "This is an astonishing jump to conclusions for a being who knows so little about himself...For if we do not know even how we manage to be conscious and intelligent, it is most rash to assume that we know what the role of conscious intelligence will be, and still more that it is competent to order the world."


Thomas Berry. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988. p. 114.
Rollo May. Man's Search for Himself. New York: W.W.Norton & Co., Inc., 1953. p. 50.
Alan Watts. Nature, Man and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. pp. ix, 4.

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