What Moves Us?
Are Spirits Metaphors or Realities
What makes things happen? Why do we talk about schools, or whiskey, or eras or teams as possessing “spirit”?
Are spirits metaphors, stand-ins for the inexplicable?
When a child does something wrong, we ask “why did you do it?”
And the child must contemplate the question. What I did when I was a kid was to shrug and say “I don’t know.” In a very real way, I was being honest. I did not really know what compelled me. I know that I did it, but I’m not so sure why I did it, and now that it had raised the ire of my otherwise sweet mother, I wanted to know, too.
She seemed to know why I did it, and she wanted me to somehow admit it.
As an adult perp, facing the consequences of some stupid decision or action, you might ask “What possessed me to do it?
“Reasons?” you mutter, with a slight lilt.
In other words, we do not really know. Some people seem to be more prone to such mysterious compulsions than others, but all of us have this experience.
Augustine and His Pears
In seeking answers to his “why” questions, Augustine gets a great deal of mileage out of peaches, and so should we. Why did he steal the peaches?
Because he wanted to rebel, he says. He wanted to thwart.
There is no “real” reason we might say, insofar as we are compelled to offer a “because” to our actions. We “find ourselves doing something.” How quaint. How curious.
We do not know, and the Immanent Frame—our “default settings” in this cultural epoch we dwell within—is unwilling and unable to say. Did I take the peaches because I was I hungry? Where did my hunger come from? I know that I am hungry because I have not eaten in several hours. The stomach growl is real, but why must I satisfy this urge that rises up within me and I have no control over and I did not create? Not only did I not instigate the urge, I realize that I didn’t even instigate myself. Why does this self “want” at all? Why am *I* at all? I did not want (initially) to be here; I did not make the decision.
What caused that?
Does my mind merely want to keep going, so that it uses my body to perpetuate itself? What about other minds and other bodies? We find ourselves as agents in an arena with other agents, all of which we did not create.
We Move and Are Moved
Our frame ignores the question, takes movement or cause as a given, and looks for mechanical explanations for the animating forces behind such reasons. The thing is not of any (real) concern. If we start asking questions of animation and force (and even the notion of a “behind” in this construction) we are well on the path towards necessity, a cause, and ultimately to an Uncaused Cause.
We take movement—animation—for granted, a force that is and was and always will be. Until it is not. Yet we appear to “just accept” movement, as if it always was so and will always be so. We pretend that infinite regress is not a problem. This should arrest us in our tracks.
“This is,” to quote President Biden in a wildly different context “a big f*cking deal.”
I remember reading one of the Proofs as an undergrad. I was kind of blasé and bored about Aquinas’ notion that everything needs a mover. The notion that there must be, by necessity, a Prime Mover made sense to me, but I did not appreciate how such a force or animating inception was necessary. And of course from movement, we get to the efficient cause business, and then finally the whole infinite regress business. Bertrand Russell objected to this necessity, and counseled instead for asserting the idea of the “brute fact” of the universe. This assertion was to counter Aquinas’ insistence on an Unmoved Mover, but it struck me then and certainly now as a similarly convenient dodge. He did not want to believe in an Unmoved Mover because he did not want to believe in God.
This is Haidt’s Motivated Reasoning.1
If this is “the whole story” as Lewis frames it in Miracles, then notions of movement cannot really be entertained. Only “brute facts” and there can be no serious discussion of Spirit. And any system that says “don’t ask that question”2 is worthy of complete contempt. Not only can we ask that question, but we must.
We must somehow account for why we do things. Further complicating matters for us is that modernity insists that explanations such as spirits are not tenable. The notion that spirits exist has become nearly impossible to believe in, as Charles Taylor notes with great and painstaking detail in A Secular Age. We denizens of modernity insist that no such things (really) exist, they have little power over us, my agency, my mind. They are, at best, mere metaphors. Placeholders for explanations that will never show up.
But I’d like to point out that we cannot escape the language of spirit. Think about love in the pop-culture sense. We are obsessed with the spirit of romantic love, and perhaps even possessed. Our pop songs are filled with spirits yet we don’t call them such. We pretend we are in control, yet lament that “love made me do things” or “love is madness” or “love is blind” or “the heart wants what the heart wants,” ad infinitum ad nauseum. We say that “I found her enchanting” or “I was swept off my feet.” Note the loss of control. “I can’t help falling in love with you.”
“They are only songs” you might say. But yet they dominate us, they rule our attention, and they condition us. Our popstars captivate and enchant us.
Beatlemania was real. Hordes of screaming girls in the throes of madness. They were moved by the spirit of John and Paul, George and Ringo. Have you seen the videos?
Similarly with athletes. They all walk in to the arena with their headphones on, listening to the right music, hoping to time the opening buzzer with the right mood, the right spirit. They must get “in the zone” so they can “play out of their mind” and play “like heroes.” Even within the arena, the music swells and hits, pumping spirit into athletes as well as the crowd, a carefully crafted choreography of team spirit. No one has to tell you to stand up and cheer at a touchdown, or a poster dunk, or a blocked shot against the backboard. As soon as the crack of a homerun hits the ear, the whole crowd stands up. The spirit has moved, inspiring both the batter and electrified spectators. The liturgy of sport is a liturgy of spirit.
Yet most people would say spirits, even if they are real, have no effect upon them. We seem to have sublimated spirit into a more socially acceptable idiom.
Pills and Prayer
The idea of a “buffered self” has been ascendant and dominant for at least 250 years. Taylor’s notion of the Social Imaginary, “the way we collectively imagine, even pre-theoretically, our social life in the contemporary Western world”3 has become de-spirited, or to use Weber’s term, “dis-enchanted.” Things are just things, malleable, changeable, alterable. Nothing inheres in the material world. We posit in our exclusively secularism that nothing happens that is not ultimately explainable in purely physical terms.
What I mean with all these negatives is that we believe in a purely material explanation for all movement, all cause, all of which is rests upon Russell’s “brute fact.” Curious how incurious we are about such fundamental things. Quaint even.
Today we choose to see through the chemical lens, medicalizing our spirits. If someone acts crazy, we give them a pill. The pill is not meant as a cure, per se, but rather a cope. The pill binds the mood-we-dare-not-call spirit, allowing the patient temporary agency over some unseen chemical cause. My taking of a pill does not cure me, but it does stave off the “spirit” or the source of animating discomfort—my anxiety, my depression, my dysphoria. It may be that in a former age, in the age of the Porous Self, the patient would have been understood to be in need of an exorcism, or at the very least, prayer. Prayers of propitiation would be said, holy water employed, candles lit, and blessings poured out. It strikes me that both scenarios accept certain givens, certain agencies foreign to the well ordered person.
But the language of spirit is inescapable. Spirits—these things that compel us and move us and inspire us are real insofar as they create movement. But is all of this spirit talk merely “legacy code"? Is spirit-talk leftovers from an era which we relied on what was “metaphorically true but literally false” to use a favorite line from Bret Weinstein?
Subtraction Story Blues
Treating spirits as remnants of a subtraction story we haven’t yet shed ignores a constituent part of our shared reality—our Social Imaginary. But is the Subtraction Story coming to its end? Has it lost its ability to explain what is going on? Who has really gotten better in the modern medical industrial complex?
We have lost our beliefs, but retained our dilemma. We claim to be beyond the superstitions of a prior age, saved by the glories of our Revolutions and the obvious material technological advances. But we remain haunted by the ghosts of the past.
They are not gone.
I’m reminded of the opening epigraph from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It is a translated quotation from by Burnet’s “Archaeologiae Philosophicae“ (1692)":
I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family of all these beings, and the ranks and relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things, but never attained it.
The Mariner returns from his spectacular misadventure a wild-eyed and altered seer. He has a burning need to retell his story, not knowing who he must tell his story to next. Is he merely crazy? According to the rules of our social imaginary, we are forced to say “yes.” He is crazy. He did not “literally” live through the harrowing tale, animated by a cursed albatross, returning on a ship manned by animated corpses. (The poem is quite strange.)
Coleridge sees that poetry must take up the cause of spirits, attenuated as they have become. The Romantics were rebelling against a world shorn of its animation—it’s anima—through the horrifying political turn in the Revolution in Paris, and the flattening of the world vis a vis the Revolution in Science. We have chased out these invisible natures, pretended that they do not exist, yet feel the cross pressures around us and in us. We know we are possessed and obsessed—by people, ideas, teams, chemicals, moods, hormones. Perhaps we have conceded too much to the immanent frame. Spirits move things and make things happen.
Spirits are more than metaphors. They move through us. We do things because spirits make us and move us, use us and shape us.
editor’s note: in the original post I went with “peaches” instead of pears. Shout out to my mother Judy Zelden for the correction!
Eric Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution (pp. 289-90), the chapter heading is "Marx: The Genesis of Gnostic Socialism"
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age p.146