The negative approach doesn’t reveal to us what is true or right, it doesn’t give us a path to follow, or ‘list the steps we need to take’. It gives us no map of the terrain, no metaphysics, no overview of what’s going on, or ‘what it’s all about’. It doesn’t do any of these things and that’s the whole point of it – the whole point of the via negativa is that it takes away whatever it is we think we know and gives us nothing in return.
The via negativa has never had very much in the way of mass appeal, therefore. It has never figured in any list of ‘what’s trending right now’! For most of us (for almost all of us) what we’re looking for is the exact opposite of this – we want to be given a path to follow, we want to be told what the steps are that we should take, we want an explanation of what’s going on and instructions as to what exactly we should be doing. We want it spelled out for us in nice black and white terms so that everyone can clearly see what’s true and what isn’t true, what’s right and what is wrong. We want all of that to be taken care of for us so that all we have to do is conform to whatever system it is that has been laid down for us.
In one way this seems reasonable enough, the desire to be guided in this way seems eminently prudent – think about all the mistakes we could make otherwise! Surely – we say to ourselves – there are wise people (or experts!) out there who can do this for us. It doesn’t (or at least it shouldn’t) take too long however for us to work out that there is a very big problem with this implicit demand of ours however, the implicit demand to be ‘guided’ or ‘shown the way’! It shouldn’t take us too long to spot the big problem with this because this is what has been going on for the whole of human history and it hasn’t ever done us the slightest bit of good. The desire to be guided by someone else translates – when it comes down to it – to the unhealthy willingness to hand over responsibility to someone (or something) else. We want someone else to ‘tell us what our lives should be about’, and that’s asking for trouble!
If we were to look at human history in psychological terms (rather than focusing on tedious accounts of the reign of Kings and Queens, or the dates pertaining to this battle or that battle) we would see that is only ever been one thing happening (albeit in many different guises) and that ‘one thing’ is the ongoing struggle to convert everyone else to seeing the world in the same way that the group we belong to does. This has absolutely nothing to do with any concern that we might have with that inconsequential little thing called ‘the truth’, and it has everything to do with the pursuit of power. Being the one ‘who gets to say what reality is’ is the ultimate expression of power, it’s the ultimate expression of power because it’s the ultimate form of control. If I get to be the one who defines how you perceive (or understand) the question of ‘What is reality?’ then I control you absolutely. Control doesn’t get any more ‘total’ than this…
Friedrich Nietzsche makes the comment:
All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.
When we have the power to determine which ‘interpretation’ is the official one (the only one that people ever get to hear about, the one we all have to go by) then we have complete control and – from a psychological perspective – this is what we all want. Control – we might say – is the ultimate commodity from the POV of the idea that we have about ourselves (i.e., the ego) because it is only because by being in control of how things are seen that this idea appears to be actually real. This makes ‘control’ not just important, but essential. If I have control (with regard to how things are to be seen) then I can use this to give myself high status, and anyone who is against me low status – within my own subjective sphere I can always make myself out to be ‘the good guy’ (or ‘the one who is in the right’) and this self-serving distortion of the truth is of course the classic hallmark of the everyday ubiquitous ego! We see it going on all the time…
On the personal level therefore, we have the power to tell ourselves whatever lies we want to and ‘get away with it’, and so this is what we – generally – do. We would like to extend this sphere of power if we could however and be able to control other peoples’ subjective reality too (if we could) and this is what lies behind the drive to wield power. This is why we (as egos) are forever playing nefarious ‘power games’ with those around us – it’s the natural progression of what we are already doing. Not everyone can succeed at this however and so we get this situation where we band together in groups, which vastly amplifies our ‘ability to distort reality and get away with it’. The bigger the group the greater the ‘power’ the group has and so our motivation – as ‘group members’ – is always to convert everyone else to see things the way we do, in ways that can be either subtle, or extremely crude. History bears witness to our ongoing attempts to control how reality is seen, therefore.
There are two complementary things going on here, we might say – there is the drive to be the one who defines ‘what is real’, and there is also the drive to conform to a convenient group identity so as to have our lives defined for us. In a crude way, we could say that there are ‘those who want to have reality defined for them’ and ‘there are those who want to do the defining’ (and enshrine their elite status within the set up that they themselves have thereby created). There’s not as much difference here as we might think, however – it turns out that it’s ‘all the one game’ (which is ‘the game of thought’, ‘the game of defining and being defined’). If I get to make up the rules of the game myself, which will of course be to my own advantage (as we all understand); if I define reality then you can be sure that I will do this in order to suit myself.
We might for example think of the Christian Church over the last thousand years or so – what better position could the Church put itself in than the position of being able to authoritatively say what life and death is all about, and cast themselves (conveniently enough) as ‘the exclusive mediator between God and Man’? It’s no surprise that the Church held on to this position for one thousand years or so or so – they were ‘the definers of reality’ and this brings serious perks. The Church Fathers thus demonstrated themselves to be consummate masters of the power game, and all in the name of saving souls!
The advantage gained here is entirely illusory, however. The one who wields power is just as hopelessly trapped as those who have been ‘disempowered’; the use of power is an evil to everyone concerned and there is no good outcome in it for anyone, despite what we all think. We think that this is the key to everything but it isn’t – the winner of the game is every bit as much a victim of the game being played as the loser is. That’s because the winner is – of course – just as much ‘defined by the game’ as the as the losers are; everyone playing the game imagines that playing successfully will allow them to ‘escape the game’ but it doesn’t. There is no ‘liberation’ to be had as a result of game-playing, no matter how well we play!
Power means that we get to take away the freedom of those less powerful than we are, the ones who are not as clever as us (or as lucky as us, perhaps) – they have to dance to our tune then. We’re in the coveted position of ‘being in control’; but the benefit here is an illusion, as we have just said – it’s an illusion because we’re tied into the arrangement just as much as everyone else is. We are being controlled by our own ‘need to be in control’, and so we have (paradoxically) given away our own freedom in the act of taking it away from others. The idea that there is this ‘supreme benefit’ in being a winner is ludicrous – the benefit in question is only nominal (which is to say, it only exists within the terms of the game). There is no freedom in a game, not for the winner or the losers! The only thing that benefits us – the only thing that’s worth anything – is freedom and no one ever became free as a result of exercising power!
The mediaeval Church got to say what reality is for everyone else, and it made sure to take up a privileged position in the hierarchy that it was responsible for creating, but when we look at it we can see that the members of the religious elite closed down reality for themselves just as much as they did for the population as a whole (who were given no autonomy, no voice, no influence, no ‘say so’). In recent times the game is changed of course – superficially, at least. Now, those with power have defined what life is all about in a different way – it’s not about God and the devil (or Heaven and Hell) anymore (and doing everything according to ‘religious rules’) but rather it’s about ‘buying and selling’, it’s about consumerism, it’s about ‘the law of the marketplace’. [The basic idea here being that happiness (or ‘well-being’) is a product to be bought and if we want to be able to afford it then we have to engage with the social game, and – essentially – sign our lives over to it.]
This is therefore another way of oppressing people therefore, and a very clever one at that. This is another way of having our freedom taken away from us without us realizing it. The ‘freedom’ we’re talking about here isn’t some vague wishy-washy metaphysical notion but something very concrete, something very down-to-earth, something very real. The freedom that has been taken away from us by having reality defined for us is quite simply the freedom to be something other than what we have been defined as being.
The freedom that has been taken away from us (via the masterful exercise of power) is the freedom to be anything other than what we have been defined by our society as being. But the rub here is that what we’ve been defined by society as being isn’t a real thing at all – it’s just a fiction that we have been persuaded to believe in. We might therefore think of various shortcomings or problems in society and tried to come up with ways to fix these problems, but this is beside the point entirely, once we see what ‘the collusion which is society’ is really all about. Society exists to prevent us from having any awareness of who we really are, any connection with who we really are. It just wouldn’t work otherwise – we wouldn’t have any interest in this artificial system of relations if it hadn’t sneakily substituted itself for real life (which is not and never could be defined or regulated). As Alan Watts says, “To define means to fix, and, when you get down to it, real life isn’t fixed.” The Defined World – and who we supposed are in that Defined World – is made up purely of ideas. It is purely and simply a manifestation of hyperreality and hyperreality operates by eliminating (or ‘denying’) the genuine article.
Any positive approach – without exception – does this; by their very nature, positive approaches always function by taking away our freedom. That’s why they are called ‘positive’ – that’s what ‘positive’ means, philosophically speaking. That’s how hyperreality functions – hyperreality functions by taking away our freedom and then telling us that it has given us something great. Positive reality – therefore – gest to exist by providing us with the illusion of freedom in place of the real thing. It gets to exist by ‘substituting itself for the real thing’ (which is to say, by substituting itself for ‘the negative or unstated reality’), by – in other words – ‘controlling us without us realising that we’re being controlled’.
Positive approaches are all about dislocating us from reality. To be guided or defined by any authority is to be hoodwinked, is (without exception) to be sold a fake reality. To be defined is to be the victim of aggression; it is to be exploited down to the nth degree. This business of ‘seeking to be told what life is all about’ (or ‘wanting to be the one who tells others what life is all about’, which is the same thing backwards) has been going on for as long as human beings have existed, and no one has ever benefited in the least bit from this. As we said at the beginning of this discussion, allowing ourselves to be hoodwinked by ten-a-penny ‘positive worldviews’ is what we absolutely ALWAYS do. It’s the only play in our playbook. The negative approach however is very different – the negative approach doesn’t take our freedom away, it returns it to us. The via negativa doesn’t compel us to identify with the social fiction – on the contrary, it shows up that cheap and unpleasant fiction for what it really is…