Essentialism, Rationalism, and Post Modernism: A Parable

Essentialist philosophy may be a bit difficult to understand, especially because people have been educated, and I would say indoctrinated, in the modern scientific worldview.  I have thought of a parable that may help explain the various historical and current worldviews in a simpler way and how essentialism differs from these worldviews.

I will start this parable with a reference to a mini-series that was made in 1971, titled Elizabeth R, which is based on the life of Queen Elizabeth I of England.  In this parable, England sinks under the ocean, but the mini-series, Elizabeth R, is preserved and retains popularity.

In this parable, Queen Elizabeth represents Perfect Form, or Pure Essence.  The mini-series itself represents the reflection of Perfect Form in Substance.  The making of the mini-series represents Substance.

Elizabeth R A hundred years pass after the destruction of England, but people are still watching Elizabeth R.  Elizabeth R becomes so popular, most people now believe that this is the best possible rendition of the life of Queen Elizabeth.  At about this time, someone comes along.  We will call him Mr. Aristotle.  Mr. Aristotle taught that we can learn all there is to know about Queen Elizabeth from the mini-series.  If there is information that exists about Queen Elizabeth that contradicts the mini-series, that information is wrong.

Over time, Mr. Aristotle’s teaching becomes the general consensus, and the mini-series, Elizabeth R becomes the first and foremost authority on the life of Queen Elizabeth.  Any other work about her life must be derived from and able to defend itself using the mini-series.

After another thousand years or so, Mr. Ockham comes around and teaches that there was no Queen Elizabeth, but the mini-series is important to study in and of itself.  This idea does not really become part of the general consensus at the time.  Most people believe that Queen Elizabeth did exist, but that we can learn about her from the mini-series.

Even though Mr. Ockham’s ideas did not catch on as such, they started to become mixed with Mr. Aristotle’s ideas for another 500 years, and then Mr. Literal picked them up.  Mr. Literal held the belief that the mini-series was not a story based on Queen Elizabeth’s life made 500 years after her life, but was an actual documentary filmed in real time.  Mr. Literal’s views became the general consensus, and no respected scholar could say otherwise.

Another couple of hundred years later, Mr. Rationalist came along.  Mr. Rationalist “discovered” what seemed to be new information in the form of artifacts which showed how the mini-series was made.  His friend and colleague, Mr. Enlightenment, was able to prove that the woman in the mini-series was not Queen Elizabeth, but was Miss Glenda Jackson.  After that, more and more information was discovered about the making of the mini-series…in intricate detail.  With these new “discoveries”, the entire belief in the existence of Queen Elizabeth was called into question.

Not being able to contemplate that Queen Elizabeth might not have existed, many still held on to the beliefs of Mr. Literal.  Literalists and Rationalists began a long and hard battle.  Literalists called Rationalists heretics; Rationalists called Literalists hidebound, naive, and stubborn.  How could one cling to the idea that Queen Elizabeth existed in the face of all of this evidence about the making of the mini-series?

The idea of the non-existence of Queen Elizabeth was truly a hard pill to swallow, but what could one do in the face of all of this evidence of the making of the mini-series?  Most people held on to the belief that Queen Elizabeth existed, but the belief became a bit amorphous.  Many different clubs sprung up around Queen Elizabeth, with different ideas of who she was and how she lived.  Some still clung hard to Mr. Literalist’s teachings, but most just compartmentalized their thinking.

Elizabeth the Golden AgeAfter another few hundred years, along comes Mr. Post-Modern.  Mr. Post-Modern sees the bickering between the Rationalists and the Literalists, and between the various clubs that fought among themselves. He starts to believe that maybe the most important thing is not the mini-series, but the story told by the mini-series.  Mr. Post-Modern is skeptical about the existence of Queen Elizabeth, but thinks it is a very good story.

Mr. Post-Modern’s followers, Post-Modernists, do a lot of strange things with the story.  Some say that Queen Elizabeth is figure that was derived from the collective unconscious of humans.  Some say that the mini-series was a metaphor for depictions of social inequality.  Some create new purely fictional stories about Queen Elizabeth.

In the meantime, other movies are discovered about Queen Elizabeth, as well as material that was written during the time of Queen Elizabeth.  Rationalists take this as further evidence that Queen Elizabeth could not have existed.  These materials predate the mini-series.  Queen Elizabeth was obviously just a “myth.”  This mini-series must have been based on these “myths.”  Look how much we know about how this mini-series was made.

During this time, there is another voice, and that is the voice of Miss Essentialist.  Miss Essentialist says, Queen Elizabeth was a real person that existed centuries before the mini-series.  We can know about her from the material that was written during the time of her life, including things she wrote herself.

Everyone is all in arms.  Literalists call this heresy.  The mini-series is a documentary of Queen Elizabeth’s life, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.  There is not much to say to respond to this, accept to perhaps acknowledge that at least they believe in the existence of a real Queen Elizabeth.

Rationalists say, how can you prove that there was a Queen Elizabeth?  Miss Essentialist responds with evidence of written material from her life and says that for thousands of years, Queen Elizabeth’s existence was common knowledge.  The Rationalists reply, yes, but all of those materials are myths written by people who lived long before anything was known about how movies were made.  We know who wrote the script, the actresses who played the roles, and we have uncovered the set that the mini-series was made on.  Given all of this, how can you prove that Queen Elizabeth existed?  By the way, you are not allowed to use anything other than physical evidence about how the movie was made; everything else is off limits to this discussion.  Miss Essentialist throws up her hands, baffled at how to respond given the parameters set by the Rationalists.

Queen Elizabeth IPost-Modernists say, sure who knows, Queen Elizabeth, or someone like her, may have existed.  Look at all of these different movies that have been made.  We are still making movies about her.  Miss Essentialist says look at this material written while Queen Elizabeth was alive.  You are going to get better information from this material that what is being produced today.  The Post-Modernist gets offended that the Essential treats modern material as less reliable than contemporaneous Elizabethan material or even the mini-series itself.  The Post-Modernist explains how much better at movie making people are these days, so why do you continue to venerate all of these old materials.  The Essentialist says that there was an actual Queen Elizabeth, so if one wants to understand her and her life, it makes sense to read the materials closer in time to her life, don’t you think?  The Post-Modernist scoffs at the Essentialist’s belief that Queen Elizabeth existed, extolling the virtues of “thinking for yourself,” and saying that one should not naively believe in the mini-series.

Miss Essentialist disengages from all of these conversations, quietly goes back to her Essentialist cottage in the blogosphere, continues to study the life of Queen Elizabeth, and engages in conversation with those with whom she can communicate.

False Dichotomies

The rationalist error and culture of literalism in the West creates a number of false dichotomies.  One of the most famous and controversial is the Creation/Evolution debate between religion and modern science.  To an essentialist, both sides of this debate are in error, and the heated arguments between adherents of these two camps become a bit silly.  There are, of course, shades of grey with respect to the two belief systems, and few actually subscribe to the hardest versions of the two sides.  That being said, the strictest adherents of these camps argue as follows:

 

Creationist Thought:  The Christian version of Creationism begins with a belief that the Judeo-Christian written Tradition, the Bible, is literally true and historical.  The world we live on was created about 6,000 years ago.  The heavens and earth were created in 6 days according to the Judeo-Christian Creation Story, and we can trace back the age of the earth through the genealogy asrecorded in Genesis.  Adam and Eve were historical figures that lived on this world in physical form and were tempted into disobedience against God and were expelled from the Garden of Eden, which was a physical place on this earth.  There are those in this camp that hold that this version of how we came to be is the basis for their faith, that because they believe in God, the Judeo-Christian written Tradition must be historical and literal.

Now, as I said before, this is only the most extreme version of this belief system.  There are also more moderate versions which take the story regarding the age of the earth as symbolic rather than literal.  That being said, there is a tremendous amount of ink spilled and research dollars spent to research the historical accuracy of stories from the Judeo-Christian Tradition, so I would posit that the literalist viewpoint pervades even moderate Christian thinking.

Evolutionist Thought:  The earth that we live in is countless billion years old and formed by chance from random elements that were left over from a supernova countless more billion years ago, which also happened by chance.  Somehow a random group of amino acids formed together to make proteins which randomly became single celled organisms.  These organisms evolved from these single celled organisms to complex forms of life like human beings through a process of mutation and natural selection for traits that had greater survival value.  This belief system promotes a value system of “survival of the fittest” and that the weak perish so that the strongest survive.  There are those in this camp that hold that the physical evidence that has been found to support this belief system proves that God does not exist, particularly as they believe that they have disproved the story of creation as told in the Judeo-Christian written Tradition.

Of course, again, this is the extreme viewpoint.  Most who believe in evolution do not take the research as a conclusion that God was not involved in our formation or is non-existent.  Still, this viewpoint is what is mostly taught in our culture, and one must subscribe to it, at least in part, to be taken seriously in most Western academic circles.

To an essentialist, both of these camps are in error, and this is a false dichotomy.  To begin with, essentialist thought does not hold that a religious tradition must be historical and literal to be Truth.  In fact, Truth, to be Truth, cannot be historical and cannot be based in space and time.  Space and time belong to the world of flux and change, and therefore, are by nature illusion.  Truth is found beyond space and time and beyond the world of flux and change.  In essentialist thought, we are not our bodies; our souls inhabit a physical form in this place and time.  Our souls have been around from the beginning of time, long before they entered the physical bodies they may currently be in, and our souls will return to their Source at the end of time.  The mechanism by which our physical bodies were formed is immaterial to the nature of our souls or to whether or not our physical bodies were formed in the mind of God from a Sacred Archetype.  The question of how God formed our bodies, whether creating them out of the dust all at once, whether growing them from the seed of a single celled organism, or whether there was some other mechanism involved, may be interesting but tells us nothing about the Truth beyond physicality and beyond space and time.  We can read both the Sacred Tradition and observe the Natural World to speculate as to how our physical bodies were formed, but that tells us nothing about Truth.

This error on the part of both the very conservative and so-called progressive modern thinkers is the basis for the criticism of the practice of astrology by both of these camps.  The very conservative will say that they do not believe in the practice of astrology because they “follow the will of God, not the stars.”  The progressive will state all of the scientific observations of astronomy to point out the superstitions of the primitive humans were in error.  They also will criticize those who believe that their lives are controlled by the stars.

Both sides miss the point.  Even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is written, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.”  In all traditional religions, the study of the stars and the planetary bodies marked times for religious festivals and for all human activity.  The stars were seen as signs given to us by the Divine, not as actors in and of themselves.

The “scientific” world-view also mistakes the nature of astrology as the study of how the planets act upon us.  Modern astrology has also followed this error in ascribing meaning to heavenly bodies, such as asteroids and the like, which are not a part of the sacred tradition.  This error also plays a role in the meanings ascribed to the outer planets, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, but this is another topic for another day.