Friday, November 7, 2014

Before anything happens

Synteresis (synderesis) is used by St. Thomas Aquinas for 'the habitual knowledge of the primary moral principles,' or the light of conscience which never dies out, even in the damned...

—Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Worksp. 22

I've had this quote sitting in my drafts for almost a month without getting to it, but the comment (by Walshe, the translator of the Complete Mystical Works) is a compelling one.

 This idea of the light of conscience which never dies out is akin to Gurdjieff's idea of conscience which is buried in mankind in his unconscious parts, thus insulated and protected from the damage which is ordinary psyche inflicts on almost every idea it encounters. These are big ideas; and of course, both Meister Eckhart and Gurdjieff were known for their big ideas. But how does it affect me personally? I'm quite interested, as readers know, about this idea of a primary moral principle, a fundamental truth and a fundamental goodness and rightness, all of which exist before anything happens.

 I am always involved in the happening of things; it is in the nature of perception and of living to be in the midst of happening, of the intersection of what I call objects, events, circumstances, and conditions. Yet there is something within me, that sacred spark or light, which is there first, before the outward takes place. That is an inwardly formed quality; and no matter how twisted or depraved a human being gets — and, as we all know, there are depths here that can scarcely be plumbed— there is always, at the root, a spark that gives life, and has an essential purity that even damnation cannot expunge. Even the Devil, in other words, knows what goodness is; and even the Devil has a conscience. 

What distinguishes the Devil is the fact that he intentionally ignores this.

In this way, once again, intention lies at the heart of our question of inner development. What we intend is what matters; and the premise which St. Thomas Aquinas begins with here is that there is a primary moral principle, a fundamental good — a platonic and Socratic principle, to be sure — which exists before intention does. Intention only chooses a direction — either towards or away from this fundamental moral principle.

In a conversation over a week ago, someone brought up the question of lying and asked what the nature of lying is, as though that could not be known. While it's indeed good to keep this as a living question, but nature of lying is fundamentally transparent if one examines it carefully. Lying involves a choice. I cannot lie unless I know with the truth is and then intentionally go against it; that is exactly what a lie is, it is an intentional misrepresentation of the truth. So lying begins with intention; and if Gurdjieff says we lie all the time—an observation echoed by Jeanne de Salzmann (see The Reality of Being, #73, A Ferocious Ego)— what he is actually saying is that our intentions deliberately go against the truth; that is, that we know what the truth or the right thing is, and we go against it anyway. If there is badness in us, if we are lying, it is willful; it can't be any other way, because lying by default implies willfulness.

Lying is an abandonment of the primary moral principles — of the search for truth. Much of life consists, in one way or another, of an intentional misrepresentation of the truth; and it is the examination of this intention that lies at the heart of understanding what I am as opposed to what I wish to be.


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