Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Guilt, part I—A failure of duty

Tulip, Sparkill, May 2016

The other day, I was over at my friend Sylvia's and we briefly discussed the idea of guilt.

Guilt has two aspects. Outwardly, it's assigned by societal authority: it consists of blame which is legislated by the courts, the church, the government, other people.

Inwardly, however, the aspect is quite different. It is assigned by ourselves, to ourselves.

In this way, it is possible for a human being to be guilty outwardly in the eyes of the law or society; but to be guiltless inwardly. When a person is objectively guilty of reprehensible, criminal, terroristic, or ethically or morally  unacceptable conduct, but feels no inward guilt, we call them a sociopath or a psychopath. I've known such individuals. The interesting thing here is that it's possible for a human being to assign themselves no guilt whatsoever, no matter what outward circumstances may suggest is appropriate.

 On the other hand, a person can feel immense guilt inwardly without any obvious objective outward reason for it. We frequently joke about such things, referring to "Catholic" guilt, "Jewish" guilt, and so on. In this folk version of guilt, it is our religious upbringing that causes us to feel guilty about all sorts of things, whether it's appropriate or not. When we assign blame towards ourselves, in other words, it takes place quite often independent of outward truth or action. In extreme cases, guilt can be associated with severe depression.

My conversation with Sylvia led me to ask myself exactly what guilt is, and why the inward and outward versions of it seem so disconnected with one another. In researching the meaning of the word, it turned out that its etymology is uncertain; it comes from a Teutonic root, gylt, that has no  specific equivalent in other languages. In German, it is Schuld; which means, more or less, responsibility for wrong action. French renders it culpabilité, culpability, which is about the same thing.

Turning to the Oxford English dictionary, one discovers the word has a depth that belies its simple and linguistically detached origins. We are offered (among others) the following:

1. A failure of duty, delinquency; offense, crime, sin.
2. Responsibility for an action or event; the fault of some person.
3. The fact of having committed, or being guilty of, some specific or implied offense; guiltiness.
4. The state (meriting condemnation and reproach of conscience) of having willfully committed crime or heinous moral offense; criminality, great culpability.

 The first definition is certainly interesting in terms of Gurdjieff's teaching; a failure of duty. This is, to be sure, the specific abrogation of responsibility he assigns to mankind's inward deficiency,  hence his phrase being-Parktdolg-duty, which is commonly understood to mean "duty, duty, duty," or, three centered duty. Any way one chooses to read it, the emphasis is clear enough.

 The abstractions of inward blame for our actions are tangled questions. The inexorable concrete realities of outward blame, whether in relationships, jobs, or social contexts, are relentless ones. In both cases, they spring from a complex of opinions that inflict themselves on us—whether psychologically or materially.

But the practical action of these inner and outer daemons requires a different kind of examination when weighed on the scales of spiritual practice; and that is the question that interests me here, which we will take up in the next post.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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