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Home Uncategorized The God in the I

The God in the I

Manus Charleton

The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, by Hermann Keyserling, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925, Vol.1, 338 pp Vol. 2, 400 pp

Hermann Keyserling (1880 – 1946) is not well-known now. Yet in the first half of the twentieth century he was a leading intellectual in Europe and America. A hereditary count born into an Estonian family of landed aristocracy, he grew up interested in philosophy and spirituality. In 1911, at the age of thirty-one, he travelled around the world to develop his spirituality by drawing from different religious cultures and the secular culture of North America. The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, first published in English in 1925, is his account of this journey. He wrote it while living on his estate between 1912 and 1914. The outbreak of the First World War prevented its publication, and he continued to revise it until it was published in 1918. In that year also he lost his estate and fortune as a result of the Russian revolution and went to Germany, where he lived by his work as a writer and lecturer, and in 1920 he founded a school of wisdom in Darmstadt.

Keyserling’s aim in travelling was unique in what he hoped it would accomplish; it also had a certain logic. To develop spirituality in himself, he would be experiencing some of the best means available for it in places where it has flourished among the peoples of the world. There is some similarity between The Travel Diary and William James’s 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience. But James’s book is more an academic study of the efficacy and diversity of religious experience than a personal journey of spiritual development. Keyserling’s undertaking, in contrast, has something of the inordinate ambition, if not obsession, of Fitzcarraldo, the character in Werner Herzog’s film of the same name, who embarked on an extraordinary journey down the Amazon to acquire rubber which would fund an opera house he wanted to build in the jungle city of Iquitos in which a troupe of singers headed by Caruso would sing.

A bestseller in the late 1920s and long out of print, The Travel Diary is a strange book to read now. In some ways it’s of its period, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the world was opening up for well-off, educated Europeans who were curious about other countries and their native cultures. The Diary is marred by some spurious pejorative generalisations about racial and feminine characteristics, and they date it to a time swept away by the Second World War and the subsequent declaration and promotion of universal human rights. Edward Said’s 1976 study Orientalism, exposed many western writers on the East for expressing a superior Western attitude that contributed to laying the intellectual foundations for imperialism in the region. Said doesn’t mention Keyserling, but he refers to “the sheer egocentric power of the European consciousness” which the writers had “at their centre”, no matter that they were “gifted travellers” who wrote admiringly of “the wisdom of the East” and of its “exotic” cultures. Keyserling was certainly a gifted travel writer and, while some of his writing suffers from characterising Eastern people in an oriental light, in his introduction he acknowledges there is no homogenous East. He also shows he is aware that the practice of conceptualising about race is a European tendency. He tells us he considered rewriting the Diary to remove the oriental aspects. But he decided against it on the grounds that it would take away from the form in which he had completed it.

Keyserling was neither Eurocentric nor egocentric. He believed that people are capable of developing spiritual self-realisation no matter what their race or culture. And he was well aware that central to spiritual development in practice is becoming free of the ego and its attachments, which would include any ideas or feelings of superiority. He was known for his cosmopolitanism at a time of fervent nationalism and for his empathetic appreciation of the spiritual dimension of religious cultures. His depth and breadth of sensibility and understanding led him to see manifestations of human nature in the variety of cultures. Each culture expresses a dimension of human capacity, whether Islam or secular individualism. As he put it: “Humanity is an orchestra of many voices; the philosopher listens to the symphony.”

The Diary has the appeal of a physical journey as a means of informing a spiritual one. And ever since Homer’s Odyssey, writers and readers have found that a journey which leads to some form of self-realisation can provide a gripping narrative stream. But the strangest thing about the Diary as philosophical/spiritual writing is Keyserling’s insistence in the opening lines of the introduction that, while based on “the external stimulus” of an actual journey that includes eye-witness descriptions and “abstract commentaries”, it is “an inwardly conceived and inwardly coherent work of fiction, and only those who regard it as such will understand its real meaning”. The fictional form would seem to have given him the freedom to convey something of what it feels like to live a spiritual life. Instead of trying to expound a worked-out philosophy, he aims, he says, to enable readers catch “a glimpse … of an attitude of soul and mind capable of attainment in practice”. Fiction is also a better means than non-fiction for expressing the subconscious, and he believes the source of all profound spiritual knowledge lies there.

Keyserling wrote a number of non-fiction books and believed his ideas were ahead of their time. If his core ideas are to have the influence they deserve today, it will perhaps come from a renewed appreciation of his Travel Diary. It’s a unique blend of philosophy, travel writing and fiction in which he unites his subconscious awareness of the depth of spirituality with an expansive, imaginative account of its various manifestations in a diversity of cultures. In its form the Diary provides an early, if not the earliest, example of creative non-fiction, or non-fiction novels, which writers have been exploring in recent years.

In his book My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, Herman Hesse described Keyserling’s Diary as “so extraordinary a performance that the weaknesses in it amount to nothing”. Hesse also said that his own philosophy, which he tried to express through his poetry, was the same as Keyserling’s philosophy of “the God in the I and the ideal of self-realisation”.

Keyserling’s desire to travel came from a need he felt to break free of his East European aristocratic and Christian background. He found it had grown into him “from the outside”, enclosing and limiting him. It became “an ever-present external world” in which his consciousness “is caught again and again”. He believed that travel would help him achieve his aim of becoming Proteus in the spiritual realm. Proteus is the sea-god known for his ability to shed confinement within a particular form and, amoeba-like, have experience of other forms. Keyserling intends to allow different forms “work their spell on me one after the other and then watch what will become of me”. He believes the Proteus mode is the ideal because there is no one cultural form which captures all the depth and breadth of spiritual experience. Instead, there is an underlying primordial power or force that has given rise to the universe, humanity and its varied cultural efflorescence: “One single primordial force flows through the universe, conditioning and animating every formation, manifesting itself in all of them.” It is in us along with everything else. It is “the God in the I”, which Hesse referred to. And while it doesn’t itself have a form, Keyserling’s aim in travelling and in writing is “to recognise or to present” it in particular cultures and in nature.

Keyserling travelled by boat across the Mediterranean and down the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From there he went on to India, China, Japan, Hawaii and North America. On the way he stayed for periods in different places. Over two volumes, his diary entries are extensive and rich. They are held together by his overarching aim, but it’s also an aim whose viability he questions, both when in the Himalayas and on his return.

While travelling down the Suez Canal, he provides an image through which he intuits the god of the desert known to Bedouins, and identifies it as the founding god of the universe and of religions. Its all-powerful force is palpable in the tension of the empty desert’s “great silence” and “solemn stillness”. He envisages it too behind the terrifying event of the Samun, the intensely hot storm of suffocating sand and dust before which Bedouins “quail”. This is the god which continues to live in all religions “as an ancestor continues to live in his distant descendants”.

In the tropical forest and Buddhist temple region of Kandi in Ceylon, he feels subsumed by “the hothouse air” and “the aimless exuberance” of vegetation. The plentiful evidence in nature of continuous birth, growth and decay brings home to him that his thoughts, moods and circumstances are similarly “driven onwards restlessly through a ceaseless sequence of births and deaths”. He can understand how for Buddhists the world is a process of “endless becoming” in which it makes no spiritual sense to live on a treadmill of trying to satisfy fleeting desires.

Though Buddhists try to remain detached to avoid suffering in particular, Keyserling doesn’t see Buddhism as a pessimistic philosophy in the lives of the Ceylonese. Instead, he is taken by how their beliefs and practices transfuse them with “the mild glamour of peaceful joy”. Detachment enables them to live more harmoniously within all that is occurring. More fundamentally, it clears the way for them to experience an underlying centrifugal force coursing through all change. Keyserling experiences this too when he recognises that “It is not I who think, but something thinks in me, it is not I who wish, but something wishes in me.”

The aim of all religious self-realisation is “the spiritual transfusion of appearance” with divine light. And in India he sees that Hindus connect with a sense of the divine through recognising the inner significance of the material and animal world and the world of human desires. Through their attention and feel for inner significance they evoke polytheistic manifestations of a divine core. It’s as if empirical phenomena, in being attended to and imagined in a divine light through ritual ceremonies and festivals, come to be revealed as having that light. It’s a process in which “reality and mythology mingle”. And the “significant element of reality is raised in the process of mythological transformation”. The process brings out “the essentials”, but “not necessarily that which seems most essential in the object, but that which seems the most essential to the poet and his kind”.

Hindus are also notable for expressing the power of faith. He experiences it in particular in Benares on the banks of the Ganges. It’s palpably a holy place, made holy by the devotion of many generations of pilgrims who have immersed themselves in the flowing water and prayed on the river bank and by the Ghats. An atmosphere of reverence pervades the site, especially when pilgrims bow in unison toward the rising sun.

Reflecting on Hindu holy men practising yoga, he has no doubt about its value as a training of body and mind to prepare a person for living with spiritual recognition. He regards it as the East’s greatest gift to the West, which people in the West would be foolish to ignore. Even a few minutes a day of yoga practice, he believes, helps to liberate the mind from its confinement to limiting ideas and feelings. Yoga meditation trains the mind to increase its power of concentration so that it become less a prey to disparate thoughts, especially to its activity of automatically churning out involuntary disturbances and imaginings. Through yoga the mind becomes more present to itself and its intentions. He sees it also as allowing people to accumulate mental energy, and to deploy that energy in accordance with their will. For spiritual self-realisation especially, yoga enables a person to hold his mind in a quiescent state of “collected intellect” that can serve as “a pliant organ” to allow deeper intuitions of the primordial source to pass through it.

Delhi’s monuments and mosques leave him cold at first. Yet he can see Muhammad was right to ban attempts at artistic representation of Allah because none could ever come close to doing God justice. Allah’s living spirit reigns everywhere, especially in “wild nature”. Keyserling can see that Islam is based on something much wider than national characteristics; that it is the most universal of all religions. It is a religion for all people and provides a natural common bond.

He is impressed in particular by the power in Islam to form the lives of those who practise it, and he attributes this to its core requirement of obedience. Discipline is made “objective” by communal prayer at set hours with the faithful kneeling in rows. Training in obedience increases a believer’s strength in orientation toward Allah. He says he can identify the Muslim spirit in himself and feels at home in it. In essence it’s the same spirit that’s in the Jewish and Christian religions. And members of all three are “brothers”.

He is awestruck by the Himalayas. They are “cosmically great” and “unearthly”. They make him feel he is “being driven bodily up from below” as part of the thrust of the primordial force. It brings him “marvellously near to God”. Yet it’s here that he questions the viability of his Proteus undertaking. It involves “the paradox” of seeking to remain free to experience different forms of spirituality where the whole tendency of the mind is “toward stabilisation”. From this tendency come “laws, social systems and worked-out philosophies”. Everyone’s mind “crystallises sooner or later into a rigid structure” that “seems incapable of any change”. He is aware, too, of how strong a determining factor our external environment is in what we become, and how strong the tendency to inertia can be. And yet we can choose to exercise our mind in a particular way, and we “regard the greatest mind as the one which is “most plastic”, the one “never finished”.

He recalls a biologist’s remark that the human brain has a protoplasmic nature. And he agrees that the brain does change in the course of time, but it’s not completely protoplasmic because nothing essentially new is created by the changes it undergoes. And so he acknowledges the obvious: he can never literally achieve the Proteus ideal of getting beyond himself by changing his outlook and sensibility into that of some other person steeped in a particular religion. He has longed to do so since he was a child when he had felt he should be able to morph his “real existence” into other forms, unlike an actor who is confined to representing different roles. He knows his childhood wish was a fantasy, but he still “grieves” over its loss. And this reference to his childhood belief, which he has taken on into the Diary as the Proteus theme, suggests he’s aware there is a fantastical element to his undertaking, one that serves as a further reason why be wants the Diary to be understood as fiction. There is an imaginative, postulating, “what if” element to his pursuit of the Proteus ideal. He uses it for the purpose of exploring artistically and philosophically the potential and limits of living a spiritual life. And it serves the purpose of making us realise and think about the partiality of our own cultural world and outlook vis-à-vis others.

As he understands the brain, it is “like a protoplasm” without actually being one. He likens it to “a muscle” that is developed by exercise. In this sense, as a “psychic organism”, he believes we become whatever makes up the habitual content of our thought process. As Buddhists recognise, we don’t have a fixed self, and its absence opens the way to understand ourselves as the embodiment of “a passage of mental images”, or as “a direction” given by their pattern. In any event, the self is “nothing personal”. On this understanding, which comes to him where the Himalayan air “gives wings to the mind as no other”, he convinces himself, as the protagonist in his fictional work, that the Proteus ideal is still attainable. It will come from allowing his Proteus outlook to “take root in the fundamental ground of his being”. And he reminds himself that this ground, while “conditioning all limitation, is unlimited itself”.

But he also recognises a further paradox. While trying to live up to the Proteus ideal of changing himself to benefit from different spiritual cultures, he is still seeking a limited type of spirituality, one dependent upon the range of spiritual cultures available to him. Even if he could realise it perfectly in himself it’s still a finite form of perfection, albeit one that’s flexible and wide-ranging, whereas the godly one he desires knows no bounds. “A Proteus, who strives after finite perfection … there is something tragi-comical about it.” A bit like Don Quixote, he’s trying to achieve an impossible ideal beyond the practical reality of living in a human world. And while he’s determined to try and fulfil his undertaking in the finite Proteus way he now recognises, his reflections on its paradoxes betray a shaky confidence.

In China he finds the influence of Confucianism more evident than that of Taoism, and he is struck by how civilised the people are. He finds Confucius’s teachings on ethics are effective because they accord with how people naturally feel they should behave. The teachings are founded in the natural practice of parents caring for their children and children honouring and respecting their parents. The natural bonds of caring that are in the family are expected to obtain also between rulers and the people, which includes behaving fairly as well as with humanity. The privileged and peasants alike are aware of the “vital meaning of morality” in its “simplicity and primitiveness”. It’s a morality, too, in keeping with the Chinese penchant for etiquette and ritual. Leading a moral life sensitive to collective needs is the Chinese “means of self-realisation”. And they have interiorised virtues to the extent that they anchor them in a “spiritualised gravity” or a “concrete infinity”.

He describes Japanese Buddhism as “artistic in the highest degree”. Monks are trained to conduct themselves in accordance with an artistic form of knightly honour and courtesy, and symbols are used to express spirituality directly. He tells us that art has meant little to him as a spiritual source compared with the wildness of nature. But, as an art form, he can see that the Buddhist life shares in an expression of the depth in nature which Japanese painters have brought out. The painters “know that form not only represents content, but actually creates it”, and form “translates this recognition into practice all the more energetically the more content in itself loses its power”. In its Zen form Japanese Buddhism is at its most artistically spare. It’s not based in, or reliant on, cultish beliefs. It validates itself through the practice of a heightened and controlled self-presence to the world.

The Japanese also have an artistic feel for harmony in nature, which they express in their garden designs. This harmony is realised in rhythm, in “the mobility of living appearances”. He feels he could perceive like a Japanese painter and live in accordance with a natural harmony. However, it doesn’t meet sufficiently his own particular spiritual need. He believes that every individual has a defining attitude that “alone is a reliable means of expression for what is profoundest in him”. And his defining attitude is one of keeping himself “empty” so as to “unearth thoughts without hindrance from the unconscious depths”.

One such thought comes to him in Honolulu. In the early morning, beside a lava field, he is moved to describe poetically a scene akin to “the primeval origin” of the world, a scene which provides an intimation of the primordial god:

Every time when a new day dawns it seems to me as though the evolution of the world were starting all over again. The vapours and mists wipe out all individual shape. The contours grow uncertain. And the great holy stillness, not disturbed by so much as the cry of a lonely bird, breathes all over nature the atmosphere of the very beginning of things.

Crossing the Pacific, he sets aside his dread of what he imagines materialist America will be like, observing that prejudices “only prove the limitations of him who possesses them”. Ashore in San Francisco, the secular culture of endeavour, practical progress and energy of a young, multi-racial generation appeals to him. He praises America’s belief in equality of opportunity. He also praises its utilisation of science and technology, which he believes has done more for the emancipation of people than the wisest saying of the East. In New York he can see that material prosperity enhances people’s wellbeing. There is nothing spiritually ennobling about poverty. He describes it as “an absolute evil” whose effects include “repressed sensuousness” and “embittered hurt”.

The American spirit of individualism appeals to him precisely because it rejects religious obscurantism and stresses solely “individual self-realisation in this life”. He says it’s “the only thing we need”. A person should follow what accords with his or her particular instincts, with their own “dharma”. Protestantism accelerated the trend toward individual autonomy, and he predicts belief in personal autonomy is something that will grow and become more widespread.

At the same time, religious beliefs, stories and practices provide a means, though not an exclusive one, through which spiritual self-realisation is projected and imagined. Sometimes he calls the primordial force “being”, the term for the presence of existence itself, and he sees religions providing “an imaginative exposition of being”. He likens religions to “the mirror of the centre of being in our consciousness”, reflecting the source to us insofar as it can be given imaginative expression. Religions have a special importance because most people, and he includes himself, will continue to depend on them for their development. At the same time, nature teaches that “self-realisation alone matters”, and “it is spiritually quite irrelevant … whether there are gods or not”.

As a philosopher, rational assessment is more important for him than “blind belief”. And for all their efficacy in facilitating feelings of spiritual depth, religions have blind beliefs which don’t stand up to scrutiny. One belief which many religious faiths have is in the immortality of the soul. It’s a central and understandable aspiration, and he does believe in a form of immortality. But he doesn’t believe in it as a merited reward in a next life for living a life according to the teachings of a religion, nor in images of bodily resurrection or the experience of eternal bliss through beatific vision. He has no doubt “the body is pledged to death”, and the “soul is certain of ultimate disruption”. But “the principle” of spirituality as the apotheosis of human living is “indestructible” and unlimited. The principle “is the essential and eternal which alone remains alive beyond all creation and decay”. And in this sense the rare few who manage to prevail in realising their spirituality by transcending their ego know that “their essence is eternal”. And an attitude of being able “to die gladly” knowing that life as it has been experienced is gone forever “literally involves overcoming death, for he who can give in this way – pure giving without wishing to take again – is thus beyond all nature”. Such a person overcomes his own death in the sense of giving himself to the survival of a process that outlasts him.

As a philosopher, Keyserling doesn’t believe either in any form of dogmatism or proselytising. They are characteristic of a religion that regards itself as the one true word of God, exclusive of other religions. But in effect it shows up the religion’s limitation and prejudice.

During his journey he also comments on Christianity. Christ is “too immeasurable” to have been the father of Christianity in practice. This fell to St Paul and St Augustine. The challenge of being a Christian was exemplified in Augustine’s life and confessions. But human weakness and moral failings also show what needs to be done to improve. And, reciprocally, in Keyserling’s philosophy, God can be considered to need us to overcome our imperfections so as to make his presence apparent to the extent that we can rise to the challenge. As he puts it, Augustine showed that “sin implied not only an obstacle but also assistance, that it’s precisely the barriers of nature which make it impossible to overcome her; that imperfection is the very substance of which God stands in need in order to take shape in man”.

Christian practice is based on love of God and of others. Without love, Christians are, as St. Paul famously told them, no more than “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal”. For Keyserling, a person who experiences love radiates a feeling in which he “does not think of himself for the time being … and the man who has become entirely free from himself has by this fact found God”. But a pure spiritual love is rare. And, as ordinarily experienced, human love is not in itself divine. It includes longing and other self-interested desires. “Human love is intrinsically not selfless.” And the problem is that ordinary selfish human love became conflated with the spiritual love required as the ideal way of living a Christian life, with the result that it hasn’t always been for the good. Behind the banner of love, behind its “covering cloak”, the “all too human” tendencies of aggression, covetousness, injustice etc have been perpetrated. Genuine spiritual love has to be worked toward by overcoming attachment to egotistical needs and desires, and then a person may, or may not, come to be infused with it. Love is changed into something spiritual in a religious sense when “a higher spirit animates it”, when “the spirit of pure giving without ulterior motive, of giving without wanting to receive has taken possession of it”. This gives love “spiritual profundity”. But for practical purposes it’s too ethereal an ideal; it remained “an empty concept”. Instead, love remained bound up with “personal inclination, emotional obsession” and “the impulse of the heart”. Sentimentality and affectionate attachment came to suffice as “proof” of love, “although no saint was ever sentimental”.

At the same time, he finds that Christianity is more effective than other religions for nurturing compassion and motivating charitable deeds. But in preaching a puritan element it has a blind spot for the importance of sensuality in religious feeling. For the rare few who manage saintliness, sexual abstinence can be “a technical aid”; they may be able to transmute their sexual desires into spiritual energy. But for ordinary mortals repressed desires are “forced up into the realm of the soul”, distorting spiritual sensibility. Keyserling is also critical of Christianity for contributing to the practice of “grovelling” before God, which he attributes in particular to the influence of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ.

Not surprisingly, from his experience of America he points out that materialist culture too has negative consequences for spirituality. Keeping up with constant innovation makes people and the culture “superficial”. It also leads to degradation of the earth’s rich diversity. (The dying out of the native Indian way of life and the depletion of wild buffalo on the prairie make him “tremble with anger”.) He was writing well before scientists discovered the earth’s climate was warming, yet he foresees that from unlimited and uncontrollable expansion “terrible ordeals will be visited upon us” until we realise we are “born to self-limitation”. In relation to religious myths that are mistaken for reality, he points out that facts possess “meaning of their own”, independently of how they are viewed and, if ignored, “they revenge themselves”. It’s an observation that can also be applied to the failure to recognise sufficiently the facts of climate change.

Facts and reason are not for him in conflict with his belief in the God in the I, but accord with it. He refers to findings from physics about “the hidden forces of nature” as evidence of a process of realisation at work in the origin and development of the universe. However, for him we are facilitated toward spiritual self-realisation not so much through the lens of physics as the lens of metaphysics. Evolution has given us a capacity to think beyond the physicality of things and their attributes to inhabit a much deeper and broader spectrum. “The metaphysician is someone who anticipates in his mind every possible representation and creation”, who “never looks on any form as final, never feels himself identical with anything or anyone”. But this level of expansive metaphysical awareness beyond the confines of what can be empirically verified to exist doesn’t necessarily accord with a scientific one. Many scientists, and philosophers, are sceptical of metaphysical claims having any real significance. Scientists have uncovered the evidence for the existence of physical forces behind the origin and development of the universe and the human species. But they would find it hard to accept as real some formless generative element of the kind that Keyserling recognises, one that has spiritual significance emanating from it and that merits the title “the God in the I”.

On returning to his estate, the familiar surroundings in which he had felt “captive” oppress him. It’s as if, like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun on wings of wax and was brought down to earth. His travels have enabled him to break free of crystallising in a particular form of spiritual understanding, and different beliefs and practices are now more readily available. Yet the stimulation they had when he experienced them abroad has waned. He feels now he is undergoing a transition. While waiting for it to evolve, he plays “a good deal of Bach”. Of all composers, Bach’s music can “sound the bass tones in the music of the world”. And he wants to allow his own life to sound just such a bass tone. But it won’t come from trying to live a life according to the range of spiritual beliefs and practices on offer from different religious cultures and the secular tradition. This ambition he had, he now realises, is another form of the very crystallisation he had hoped to avoid. He realises, too, that its requirement to keep on removing himself from particular cultural outlooks is “a spiritualised form of inhumanity”. He concludes that one particular life “within a seemingly limited frame” offers more than any attempt to encompass a range of culturally varying spiritual outlooks. As he puts it, “complete experience is only possible in one life which had been fully and willingly accepted”. It is only such a life that can offer the prospect of sounding a bass tone.

He now feels reconciled to his empirical limitations of belonging to the culture in which he was born and grew up. But reconciled in a new way, because its limitations now hardly matter to him. He finds he has been taken over by a deeply felt realisation that there is no self-image or set of character traits that can cover who or what he is, and so he doesn’t feel attached to any. The restrictions he had felt before he went abroad have dissolved, leaving him free.

As he was finishing the Diary, the First World War was raging around him in a struggle of nations “ever more appalling”. But Keyserling doesn’t share any of the one-sided feelings that are infecting and sustaining the war. His new realisation has “its correlation in the feeling of one-ness with the whole of nature”. Yet he recognises there’s nothing in principle preventing a new age of barbarism. Evolution hasn’t given us any commonly recognised and secure means for our spirit to develop. Progress, whether in individuals or countries, is not a straight line. Instead, it occurs “in the form of an agitated, frequently broken curve”. But he never lost his belief that how we live our lives affects global conditions, and that “all the profoundest and most essential powers of life” transcend individuals and nations. Accepting himself means affirming his imperfect life along with an obligation to work to improve conditions for others. He takes the Bodhisatva as the model for this attitude, the Buddhist who refuses to enter nirvana as long as there is even one person still oppressed by his or her circumstances.

In recent years there has been a rise in nationalist sentiment for both economic and cultural reasons, notably among people in some European countries such as England, Holland, France and also in the US. It has come in reaction to a period of rapid globalisation. People have experienced a loss of national influence over their economic and social wellbeing. In particular, they have felt their cultural identity under threat from inward migration that has led to a diversity of people from different cultures living together in the same country. It might be tempting, then, to regard Keyserling’s tale of a failed attempt to embrace different cultural traditions within himself as a salutary lesson of support for the value of the nation state and its native traditions separate from others. But this is not the lesson he is giving. He doesn’t have a need to regard himself in terms of his cultural belonging to any great extent. That belonging, he recognises, is a natural, but limited, element in his human condition. But it is by reducing, rather than increasing, its importance that he can realise himself as an individual, and by extension see himself as a citizen of the world. For him “individualism necessarily produces world-citizenship”. And this outlook is for him an “advance”. He would disagree with Theresa May’s claim that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. In Japan, where he observed a strong patriotic culture, he noted that individual existence can become submerged in nationalistic solidarity and fervour, and that this tendency works against a global or planetary consciousness. And now more than ever the widespread development of planetary consciousness is needed to avoid further destruction from excessive exploitation of the earth’s resources and conflict from religious and nationalist fundamentalism.


Manus Charleton has been published in the recent Irish Pages Seamus Heaney Memorial Issues, and in the autumn 2016 issue of Studies. The second edition of his textbook Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy & Practice was published by Gill & Macmillan in 2014.



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