(Several of the essays here are from the nineties, now slightly updated, so line one should really be “About one decade ago”, but what’s time amongst friends?)
About one week ago I awakened at dawn with such a definite series of ideas that seemed to demand some immediate form of expression, I had to wonder what sort of life I’d been leading while asleep to bring about such mental insistence. Just exactly who was calling the shots here?
I lay back and tried to snooze. But sleep would not welcome my tepid advances and the ideas would not take no for an answer. It all revolved around the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume and the twentieth century Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff.
I tantalized myself with the notion that I was about to refute Hume. Refute Hume indeed! Didn’t Bertrand Russell himself write, in Nightmares Of Eminent Persons, that there was a special section of hell reserved for those who tried to refute Hume? Yes, but insouciance had carried me through greater trials than that.
So I got up, stumbled to the dining table, and began to scribble: “Did Hume argue that the self was but a shore upon whom fell endless tides of perceptions, and that there was no discernible self to be found in the flux? And did not Gurdjieff insist that there was no permanent “I” behind the endless display of attitudes, emotions and desires with which the average person chooses to identify?”
“I hope so because I’m about to disagree with them both. There is an “I” to whom all these perceptions occur. And I, for one, feel its continuous presence in my sentient life. It is a light which I cannot switch off. It is an omnipresent detached observer. Detached but not indifferent, as P.D. Ouspensky used to say. It is, in fact, its unending presence which makes it so difficult to notice. As we say, one cannot see the wood for the trees. It is more commonly called the soul, and it navigates this earth by employing the brain’s synthesis of incoming signals to assess what lies before it and discriminate accordingly. And as it is not limited by the brain’s familial and societal education, this discrimination can be quite effective, much more so than those who worship the skull-bound organ’s remarkable abilities would ever imagine.”
“One first feels this soul by arising momentarily from that ‘flux of perceptions’ which provoke the person into experiencing the complexity of interactions involved in the unfolding of every second of earthly society. This arising is accomplished either through sustained effort or spontaneous outburst. One hovers like a hot air balloon, surveying all the action below, seeing both the predictability of behaviour patterns and the indwelling anarchic spirits who yearn to overthrow them.”
“One sustains one’s residence in this soul by entertaining one’s perceptions and emotions as honoured guests, whose visits, alas, must soon be over. Always the charming and catering host, the soul instinctively knows which side its bread is buttered on, for without such interaction it knows it would wither. With it, the sense of shared humanity derived from the dramatic fluctuations of continuous experience, is educated and polished. The resultant shine reveals the Many as aspects of the One, as little ones wanting. It is only when the interaction becomes intoxication that the I is lost in the flux, and even then the face is but one of temporary confusion.”
I then breezed off into the day buzzing with delight. I had refuted Hume and survived! Not to mention the fearsome Gurdjieff, whose disciples would no doubt snort in derision at my audacity in suggesting I had created a permanent I. Surely I was but an idiot asleep, dreaming a life dignified by a path. No, I would answer smugly, I am a path dreaming that I am an idiot asleep.
It took me some days to track down the appropriate section of Hume. It was in the Treatise Of Human Nature, part4 section6: ‘Of Personal Identity’. I was disappointed to discover that he does not actually deny the possibility of “something simple and continued, which he calls himself”, he only asserts the lack of such a principle in himself, and, most unfortunately, says he cannot reason with someone who maintains this different notion of himself. He does, however, allow that the other may be as right as he in the matter, and for this concession I am most grateful, even if it does seem to render the impetus for my bold refutation somewhat unnecessary. Well, I guess as long as I have not blundered into one of those dreadful category errors, intimated by modern writers on matters philosophical, I can still lead with my chin. On occasion.
Perhaps I have not refuted Hume in the manner originally imagined by Mr. Russell, for I have yet no notion of any hellish dwelling or punishments reserved for my rash irruption of boldness. No pain, no gain, I guess. I have only the knowing that creative endeavours continue across our sleep and sometimes inspire us not only with their memory but also their vigorous presence.