Making Meaning in 2017: Or, How not to be an Ass

Greg Salyer

President of the University of Philosophical Research

July 8, 2017

Making Meaning in 2017
Or, How not to be an Ass

Apuleius_Metamorphoses_c._65Lucius takes human form, in a 1345 illustration of the
Metamorphoses (ms. Vat. Lat. 2194, 
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana).

Now! I’d like to string together various tales in the Milesian style, and charm your kindly ear with seductive murmurs, so long as you’re ready to be amazed at human forms and fortunes changed radically and then restored in turn in mutual exchange, and don’t object to reading Egyptian papyri, inscribed by a sly reed from the Nile. (Book I:I)

So begins the ancient novel of Apuleius come down to us as The Golden Ass. It is a fitting opening and frame for a lecture on making meaning in 2017, as I will do the same stringing of tales, only without the papyri and reed. In this work from the late second-century of the Common Era, our hero is a man named Lucius, an ordinary man on business but with a curious turn. Arriving in Hypata and staying with his old friend Milo whose wife happens to be a witch, Lucius is fascinated as he watches her transform herself into a bird and decides that he would like to become a witch and a bird as well. Lucius, however, is not schooled in the art of witchcraft, which is really the art of transformation, and experiences an unfortunate outcome of his spell.

I spread out my arms and flapped them up and down one after the other, trying my best to become a bird . . . No plumage appeared, not a single feather! Instead the hair on my body turned to bristles, and my soft skin hardened to hide, my fingers and toes merged with hands and feet, squeezing together into individual hooves, and a long tail shot from the tip of my spine. Now my face was enormous, my mouth immense, my nostrils gaped, and my lips hung down. My ears too were ludicrously long and hairy. The only consolation I found in my wretched transformation was that though I could no longer embrace [my lover], at least my member had grown. I examined every part of my body hopelessly, and saw I was no bird but an ass. (Book III:24)

We are all asses. We want cheap and easy ways to transformation, and by using them, we are indeed transformed—into asses. The secret lotion that Lucius covers himself with is provided by his lover Photis, who is herself not a witch but the servant of the witch. She assures Lucius that she knows what she is doing, and Lucius, no doubt blinded by lust for Photis and desire for the bird nature she promises to provide him, believes in this pseudo-wisdom. His uninformed belief wedded to base desire makes him an ass. This old alchemy still works for most people in 2017, only our potion, our mechanism for metamorphosis, is primarily but not exclusively social media.

I will not insult you by telling what you already know about social media, its promises and failures, its reality-TV-for-everyone seductiveness, its fetid discourse. What I will say is that it is analogous to the theory of the expanding universe. Like planets, we are speeding away from each other at tremendous velocity, but our communications technologies are faster and have made it appear that we are closer than ever. That illusion is the product of a kind of witchcraft, the kind that promises easy paths to communication and community. Social media is bad witchcraft that turns us into asses; however, it is not the medium that is at fault here, anymore than it is the potion that is at fault for Lucius. What matters is intention. What psychological and philosophical needs are we hoping to satisfy when we go onto Facebook and Twitter? What do we seek from our magic, whether it is herb-infused potions or Twitter? Whence this need making us desperate enough to revert to third-grade discourse? (Apologies to third-graders for that reference.) Do we really need to be bird, or is it enough to be a human?

There are many answers to these questions in the wisdom of the world. Let me explore just one with you today. Ernest Becker has a profound response in his book The Denial of Death. As he puts it most bluntly: “We are gods with anuses.” Perhaps we could paraphrase that to say we are gods and asses. What he means is that we are cursed with consciousness, self-aware of our own mortality and broken by that duality. Here is Becker with some added nuance:

This is the paradox: [we are] out of nature and hopelessly in it; [we are] dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. [Our] body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to [us] in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. [We are] literally split in two: [we have] an awareness of [our] own splendid uniqueness in that [we] stick out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet [we go] back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. (Kindle Location 690).

Good morning mutated fish and ultimate worm food! It is good to have you here. Actually, saying that sentence and laughing at it proves Becker’s point. That we are bags of bones and blood is one thing, that we are aware of it is another, and that we can laugh at is still another, and a point that I will come to later.

How, then, do we respond to this absurd situation? Becker argues that we create theaters of heroism in which to assert our transcendence over our animal natures. These heroic venues are familiar to us from ancient literature and myth: journeys, wars, founding a city, and generating a culture, etc. Most of those venues and ventures depended upon their novel character, that is, heroic feats done for the first—or at least one of the first—times. Losing that originality, we found heroic theaters in new and different places, such as the so-called New World of the Americas. Running out of time and space, we shifted the heroic realm into smaller and more mundane venues, and the hero became a good citizen, worker, parent, or spouse. As the theaters for displaying our heroism shifted and shrank, the great monster of our animal nature crept up even closer to the edges of these artificial worlds and reminded us that despite—and maybe even because—we have made ourselves heroes, we have also made ourselves asses. And that monster was right.

Our god-like consciousness always loses to our ass nature because as an animal, we die. Sure, we can make more theaters and venues for heroic display, and we do so beautifully. We make heavens and hells to organize human life into saints and sinners, heroes and villains. We create concepts such as reincarnation and enlightenment to take us beyond our nature as asses. We create new technologies and virtual worlds into which we cast our hero plots. Maybe those imaginary worlds are ultimately true and real, but what remains with us here and now is the ass and our ass-awareness. It is this consciousness that propels us, as Becker notes.

All this gives [human] life a quality of drivenness, of underlying desperation, an obsession with the meaning of it and with [our] own significance as a creature. And this is what drives [us] to try to make [our] mark on the world, to try to twist it and turn it to [our] own designs, to bury over the rumbling anxieties; and this usually means that [we try] to twist and turn others, make [our] mark on them, use them to justify [our] own problematic [lives]. (The Birth and Death of Meaning, 122)

We can go straight from that observation to social media. We have created a global theatre of heroism that is accessed by a device and presented, for example, in 140 characters. Becker writes “[We] cannot endure [our] own littleness unless [we] can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level” (Kindle Location 3568). Writing in 1973, Becker could not have imagined that we could access a global community from a rectangle in our hand. And yet on the “largest possible level,” it is our ass nature that is revealed more than our heroism. Becker would have had one hell of a Twitter account and would have destroyed all trolls, including those in office.

To summarize with the help of Sam Keen’s introduction to the latest edition of The Denial of Death, Becker espouses four ignoble truths, we might say.  Firstly, the world is terrifying, or as Becker puts it “Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates” (Kindle Location 102-103). Secondly, our basic human need is to deny the terror of death. Thirdly, the terror of death is so profound that we must project it outward, and the function of culture is to create theaters of heroism for that purpose. After all, heroes do not ultimately die. Finally, and here let me quote Becker’s friend Sam Keen for full effect:

Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles—my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image. (Kindle Location 124)

So in an ironic turn, it is our participation in culture that taps into our “brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw,” more so than our participation in nature. The picture that emerges from Becker’s seemingly unassailable argument is of a uniquely dysfunctional animal, an animal disabled by its highest ideals.

Disabled by our highest ideals. Nothing quite captures that inversion like great literature, and in particular William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming.” Though I suspect you know this poem, a full reading is worth the time, especially in a discussion of making meaning in 2017.

The Second Coming


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (

It is as if Ernest Becker’s thesis were an exegesis of Yeat’s dark apocalyptic vision. The two parts of the poem themselves demonstrate the rise and fall of the heroic process as the first stanza, full of poetic insight, falls into the second, where our narrator slouches into despair. Indeed, the visions here are conjured from Yeat’s own occult philosophy, but they have resonated for nearly a century now because they are so apt.

Our friend Lucius the ass has a similar complaint.

I groaned from the depths of my heart, and it occurred to me it was not for nothing that wise men of old imagined Fortune as blind, and even proclaimed she was born lacking eyes, since she forever favors the evil and undeserving, and never shows justice in dealing with human beings, but chooses to lodge with precisely those whom she’d flee furthest from if she could see. And worse than that, she bestows on men their diametrically opposite reputation, with the sinful being considered virtuous, while the most innocent is subject to noxious rumors. After all, she’d attacked me most savagely, and reduced me to a beast, to a quadruped of the lowest order. Even the least sympathetic would find my troubles worthy of grief and pity. (Book VII:3)

We could call so many to testify to this state of meaninglessness and of despair: Gilgamesh, Job, the writer of Ecclesiastes to Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, and almost any Twitter feed.

Is that it, then? For making meaning in 2017, are our choices rumination on our ass nature, apocalyptic spectacle, or the false heroics afforded by social media? Yes, those are the only choices. Thank you for coming. There are, of course, other choices. In our remaining time, let me explore just three, the three that matter most to me.

The first is wisdom or what the ancients called sophia. It is the word from which we make philosophy. It may be no surprise coming from the president of the University of Philosophical Research that I am advocating philosophy as a way to make meaning in 2017, but let me be clear about what I mean here. As in our other “tales strung together to charm your kindly ear,” philosophy has suffered a similar fate to our narrators and heroes in waiting. What begins as aspiration and idealization ends in disappointment and cynicism. You may have experienced this fall personally if you have ever taken Philosophy 101 and ended up in a course on logical positivism. What begins as a unique way of seeing the world that itself opened up other worlds ends as a tautological technical exercise for the purpose of perpetuating a gnostic discourse without any gnosis. To be sure, other ways of knowing fall into this trap. It is just that other ways of knowing do not aspire to the “love of wisdom” and thus do not have as far to fall.

As in most cases, Manly P. Hall, our founder, put it better. He calls his book First Principles of Philosophy an “attempt to rescue the wisdom of the ancients from scholasticism’s ponderosity” (7). And yet, his intention is humble: “It is far from my intention to burden an opinion-riddled world with more ill-digested speculation. The fallacies of perverse thought are everywhere apparent” (8). We foist our ill-conceived and self-serving opinions upon the world even though there are better-conceived and world-serving opinions that have been available to us for centuries: “Is it not amazing that remain so unwise having inherited so much wisdom? That possessing so much that is good and noble, we remain unrefined and ignoble” (8)? Hall’s solution was elegant and simple: create ways for those who seek wisdom to find it and for those who love wisdom to be guided by it, as the very word philosophy suggests: “It has been my purpose to focus the light of an ageless wisdom upon the problems of today; to discover, if possible, from those who have lived well the secret of right living, from those who have thought well, the secret of noble action” (9-10). Hall continues: “I want you to look upon philosophy not as an abstract and difficult word, suggesting arduous labor, but as a simple and friendly term standing for all that is good and all that is real in knowledge. I want you to make philosophy the great work of your life” (12). Philosophy as a simple and friendly term. The love of wisdom as the great work of one’s life. I like that very much, and I suspect we are all trying to do something like that anyway, only without the conscious intention or clear path that Hall lays out. Finally, as if to address directly the previous status of our ass nature, romance with apocalyptic spectacle, and seductions of false heroism, Manly P. Hall writes this:

The world we live in today is ruled by fear—fear of life and fear of death. Wisdom alone can overcome fear. Love rules the sphere of the wise. Those who have learned to love life in its deepest and most mystical sense have escaped from bondage to fear and dwell in peace with all things. (14)

How do we make meaning in 2017? The same way we have for centuries—through philosophy, through the pursuit and love of wisdom.

Perhaps you agree with me and Manly P. Hall in that assessment. If you do, or even if you do not, imagine putting the line “We can make meaning through philosophy” on a Twitter or Facebook page. Imagine saying it in a bar or at a party. What would happen? In most cases the statement would be met with sarcasm, scoffing, and scorn. Why should this be? Ernest Becker might say that offering such a statement in those venues might be seen as an attempt to become a hero, to single oneself out for uniqueness in a sea of similarity, thus producing antagonists who seek the same. There may be other reasons as well.

For example, the statement “We can make meaning through philosophy” sounds (and actually is) derivative. Sure, it is derived from the great wisdom traditions of the world and from those who have lived them, but the charge of derivativeness has become a way to dismiss ideas rather than to receive them. We want new paths to wisdom because the old ones are associated with failure and ultimately pain. For example, I grew up as a religious fundamentalist in the South, so for much of my life, when I encountered fundamentalism or the South, I responded with various forms of dismissal. These things had hurt me deeply, so I held them at bay through sarcasm, scoff, and scorn. I do not think this is just me. I think our world in 2017 harms us in new ways, and even though they are really the same old ways, we feel as if we need new mechanisms of dismissal. In his book For Common Things, Jedediah Purdy makes the following observation regarding a statement such as “Philosophy is a way to make meaning”:

What do we find so untrustworthy that we dare put such scant weight on it? We surely mistrust our own capacity to bear disappointment. So far as we are [sarcastic], we are determined not to be made suckers. The great fear of the [sarcastic person] is being caught out having staked a good part of his all on a false hope—personal, political, or both. (31)

Living in sarcasm, or in rigid resistance, is living in a cultural prison where one cannot speak for fear of being unoriginal. As Purdy puts it:

It begins from the idea that each of us should be radically independent, should generate ourselves from our own will and imagination. When that ambition disappoints, and his phrases and acts do not glisten with newness, the [sarcastic person] treats his own derivative behavior with the vague contempt that a selfishly expectant parent might show toward a child who fails to perform. Refusing to take seriously such mundane things as the familiar vocabularies of thought, friendship, and romance, he stops his knowledge of them at a pointedly superficial conversance. And superficial conversance is not enough for intelligence, not enough to form a personality. (106-07)

And we might add, for our purposes, not enough to make meaning.

I now have a confession to make. I have doctored Purdy’s quotations. I understand this is increasingly acceptable in the public sphere, and I do not apologize for it even if it were not. I will not even argue that this is a small change. It is a rather large one. The reason for my manipulation is that I think Purdy, brilliant as he is, gets something very wrong here. The word he uses and that I replaced with sarcasm is in fact the word irony. And that is the second of the three ways to make meaning in 2017 that I will now discuss.

Sarcasm is a kind of cheap and easy irony that is really more about the speaker than the issue. Ultimately irony is deeply philosophical, as we shall see. In fact, I really do not need to point out irony because it has been here in this presentation all along. Irony is replete in The Golden Ass as a man seeks transformation into a bird and instead becomes an ass. Ernest Becker’s depiction of human beings as “gods with anuses” is a classic example of dramatic irony where, as characters in the play, we think the situation is one thing when it is another. Yeat’s “Second Coming” works via ironic reversals of—well—the Second Coming, not to mention lines such as “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In contrast with sarcasm, whose etymology is “to tear the flesh,” the etymology of the word irony is itself ironic. We know it as “”a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning,” but if we dig deeper we discover that its roots are in speaking itself. The Greek word is eironeia, which means ”dissimulation, assumed ignorance,” is likely related to eirein “to speak.” The “assumed ignorance” definition is telling, as it takes us back to another ancient figure and—ironically—to philosophy itself (“Irony,” Etymology Online Dictionary).

The greatest philosopher the world has known was also the world’s greatest ironist. There is even a special category of this “assumed ignorance” named “Socratic Irony” after this philosopher. Socrates’ method, his way of philosophy, his way to wisdom, was irony. If that sounds as strange to you as it did to me when I first heard it, it is because philosophy as a discipline has had a hard time getting the joke. Before Gregory Vlastos’ Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, there was Søren Kierkegaard’s 400-page dissertation titled On the Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates. It is a delicious irony in itself that it would take a Christian theologian to explore and explain the Socratic method as irony. If you do not think of Socrates as an ironist, then you are in good company. You are also, may I say unsarcastically but perhaps ironically, wrong.

And it is not just you, but Socrates’ most famous student, Plato, who is wrong, at least according to Kierkegaard. The issue of Socrates’ ironic way of being and knowing concerns the Oracle at Delphi. When asked who was the smartest man alive, the answer came back as Socrates, who himself is bemused by the response. Seeing a philosophical quest at hand, Socrates interrogates the wise men of the world and determines that he is in fact the wisest among them but only because he did not claim to know anything. Accordingly, as a knower of nothing, Socrates seeks knowledge from those who say they know, and invariably finds them wanting. In fact legend has it that Socrates said “I know that I know nothing,” and that is the source of his wisdom. To know nothing, then, is to know more than anyone else. This is the Socratic paradox, a philosophical irony, and a way to make meaning in the world.

This “way” is also the Way according to the Tao te Ching, the ancient Chinese text of Lao Tzu, who wrote “He who says does not know. He who knows does not say (1).” This “way” of making meaning is also the way of Zen: “All is not what it seems, nor is it otherwise,” reads a Zen saying. This “way” is the way of the Individual according to Nietzsche, who wrote: “Objection, evasion, joyous distrust, and love of irony are signs of health; everything absolute belongs to pathology” (Beyond Good and Evil, 155). This “way” is the way of the Christian mystics who travel the via negativa, that is, who find God by discovering where he is not. And may I say, this “way” is the way of all of us who distrust pre-packaged, market-analyzed, focus-group-tested ideas and propositions designed to sell us everything from cheap food to expensive cars, and from easy religion to expensive salvation. Irony is the antidote to bad witchcraft. When used as sarcasm, irony makes you an ass. When used Socratically, irony is a way to make meaning by exposing falsehood.

Finally and briefly, the third way we can make meaning in 2017 is difficult to describe because it goes beyond words and convention. How does one speak of the ineffable? Ironically, to be sure, but I would also say symbolically. Manly P. Hall, Joseph Campbell, Suzanne Langer, and many other great scholar-teachers have consistently reminded us that there is a world beyond words. The religious and philosophical traditions throughout and history and all over the planet have taught us the same thing. I am reminded of an amazing little book titled The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby, an anthropologist who studied shamanism and molecular biology among the Peruvian Amazon tribes. Moving from observer to participant, Narby ingested the hallucinogen ayahuasca in the appropriate ritual setting. He recounts his experience of speaking with twin snakes, and he suggests that the two snakes are actually the two strands of DNA. Accordingly, the subtitle of his work is DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. I do not know about the validity of Narby’s thesis, and others have criticized his conclusions and methodology. What interests me and frankly convinces me most about Narby’s experience and conclusion is this—the two snakes laugh at him. Even more they mock him. Even more, they mock him for losing his language. “Poor human, they say. What will you do now without your language now?” while Narby lies beneath them, mute. What do we do without language? Strange and wonderful things, actually.

Now I am going to speak a moment about television, and yes, I am going to speak about the Showtime series Twin Peaks and its creator David Lynch. For those of you who are not following the new, third season, do not worry. I will be brief. For those who are, I am sorry. I will be brief. My point is simple. Season 3, Episode 8 is being hailed as one of the most bizarre and brilliant sixty minutes of television in the medium’s history. I agree that it is both, and it is impossible for me to even recap the episode for you here because it moves beyond words and into the symbolism of music, art, and video. Imagine some twenty-six minutes of an hour-long episode containing no dialogue and a visual representation of the first atomic bomb test, the explosion of evil it releases, the response of a giant and a woman on a rock island, the generation of golden bubbles from the giant’s head as he levitates toward the ceiling, the electric charges of light and energy in a small, New Mexico gas station, and the movement of ghostly figures in and out during these charges. Now set it all to Krzysztof Penderecki’s epic and profound musical composition titled Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most brilliant creations I have seen on any kind of screen, and I remain baffled and seduced by its multivalent meanings. Art, music, dance—these ways of making meaning touch the face of the sacred precisely because they transcend words.

Let us leave with a little hope because we certainly can use it in 2017. Remember our old friend, Lucius the ass? It is worth telling you the ending of his story. The middle part of the novel involves Lucius searching for a cure for his ass-ness. He is to eat some roses, but every time it appears that fortune favors him, something ghastly occurs. Here is the ass himself describing his many journeys:

But, in truth, if Fortune so decrees, nothing turns out right for human beings: neither wise counsel nor clever devices can subvert or remold the fated workings of divine providence. In this case, a similar event to that which seemed to have worked my instant salvation threatened further danger, or rather the risk of imminent destruction. (Book IX:1)

No ass has lived such a miserable existence, and really, all he wanted to do was fly. I like to think that Lucius is all of us and just wanted to make some meaning of his life, but as he notes, “if fortune so decrees,” we are denied that wish. The problem, of course, is that we do not know the meaning we seek. We think it means being a bird, when it might just mean being a better human, or, the case of Lucius, a servant to an older wisdom that makes us new again. Lucius finally finds the right roses to eat, the right magic, and meaning, and they come from the goddess Isis. He is transformed back into a human and more, a human with meaning and purpose. We can do the same today through philosophy, irony, and symbolism and other ways of making meaning.

I will let the priest of Isis describe the meaning of the ass’s transformation and offer us our own benediction today.

Wear a happier face, to match the white robe you wear now, and join the procession of the saving Goddess with a joyful and conquering step. . . . Behold, Lucius, freed from his former troubles, delighting in the favor of mighty Isis, triumphing over fate. And to be more secure, enlist in the protection of this holy cadre, to whose oath of obedience you were but now summoned, Dedicate yourself to the commands of our sect, accept the burden of your own free will; for once you begin to serve the Goddess, you will know the fruits of freedom more completely.’ (Book XI:15)


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