Montaigne: Self – Consciousness (Part II)

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In the nineteenth century Emerson echoed the voice of Socrates and Montaigne and went beyond the notion of self-consciousness to self-reliance. Other new age gurus like Gurdjieff, J.Krishnamurti and D.T Suzuki made self-consciousness, the basic premise of their systems of esoteric philosophy.

In this history of the idea of self-consciousness, one name was missing. That personage had covered the whole ground of self-consciousness, objective consciousness (Turiya Consciousness of Mandukya Upanishad) and attained divine consciousness. He revealed to the world for the first time, the science of divinity. How the cosmos was created? He gives us 16 formulae, scientific ones of how cosmos came into existence.

That sage-scientist was Ramalinga Vallalar (1823 – )

His way of attaining divine knowledge is simple: Be always compassionate to all sentient beings, your mind is now like a bulb not shining. When you pass through it, the electric current of compassion, it will become bright and send a fluorescent light. That new light of compassion will bestow upon you, cosmic knowledge and all natural laws.

To be fair to Christianity, I must divulge a fact here. Didn’t it have the way of self-consciousness? It had. I came across this information in one of the books of P.D.Ouspensky, the Russian esoteric master. He wanted to find out the sources of extraordinary system, his guru Gurdjieff, revealed to the world. One among those sources, he speculated could be a book of yogic practices of self-consciousness. They were practised by fathers of Russian Orthodox Church. It was known as ‘PHILOKALIA’. I wanted to read this book. In my seeking after truth, I wanted to be thorough and know everything. When I mentioned the name of the book which dealt with Christian yoga of self-knowledge and god-knowledge to my friend a Christian missionary, he said, he was not aware of it. Later when he went abroad, he bought for me a three volume set of PHILOKALIA. I feel grateful to my friend. It became one of the precious jewels in my collection. I don’t know why it was not made popular. The reason could be historical or national or esoteric.

However we should not forget that every tradition has got both exoteric and esoteric sections. Unlike the common public, the initiates in philosophy and spirituality should make it a point to discover the hidden knowledge. I am talking out of personal experience. In my journey of seeking after truth, I roamed around the world for some thirty years. I was not fully satisfied with any one system. Each offered one or two gems of truth. At last, I found a diamond mine in my own backyard in the hidden wisdom of Tamil tradition, particularly in the vast encyclopedic teachings of Ramalinga Vallalar. He explained spirituality and divinity in scientific terminology. For instance, he says, everything is matter. There are six types of matter: I) Inorganic II) Organic III) Mental IV) Psychic (Soul Individualistic) V) Spiritual (Soul common) and VI) Divine (absolute compassionate). Humans contain all the six varieties of matter in their bodies. All the six are denominations of one energy. They are interchangeable and could be sublimated. The downward movement is called creation or involution. The upward movement is called evolution. Humanity stands at the center of evolution.

Second, we cannot put the blame on Christ, a pure soul who cared for all the poor and the downtrodden, for the misdeeds and some Himalayan blunders like the inquisition.

Third, some two thousand years ago, the lone voice of Christ dared to tell the truth that death was the enemy of humankind and that it could be conquered. He also proved it by his act of resurrection. Though almost all the philosophers did not believe it, he showed a new way and a new direction for the future of humanity; it cannot be denied.

Only thinkers or sage-scientists who accepted this concept of immortality for humans were Thiuruvalluvar, Thirumular and Vallalar.

Montaigne scored poorly in that subject.

Pascal condemned the method employed by Montaigne as ‘the idiotic idea of painting his own portrait’. But he personally knew it was not the idiotic way but the noblest way of arriving at self-knowledge. Only from self-knowledge or self-realization one could reach and attain god-knowledge and god-realization. In India, the method was called ‘gnana yoga’, yoga of knowledge as against bhakthi yoga or yoga of devotion as advised and practised by Pascal and other apologists of religions.

Unless one knows exactly the path of journey one has to travel, one cannot reach one’s destination. Montaigne released to the masses the map of man’s journey because everyone whether literate, illiterate, intelligent or idiotic must travel on the way. There is no other way. This was the point and psychological truth stressed by Buddha, Sankara and in the twentieth century by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Zen, J.Krishnamurti. They voiced their conviction that gnana yoga or way of knowledge was the only way of enlightenment. Other ways like devotion to an external idol of a guru or god was to avoid one’s own responsibility of a human being and wasting one’s sixth faculty of reasoning.

The starting point of the journey may be a silly and idiotic condition. The sights and objects on the way may also be idiotic. But unless the dross and the inferior objects are melted and thrown away from the crucible of the mind- body complex, the pure gold cannot be attained.

In short, the only way to combat the blind faith of following a guru perhaps easier for the masses was to travel the difficult way of painting one’s own portraiture, however ugly it was. We find the illustration in the story of the Rishi Valmiki who was initially a robber but later turned into a seer and wrote the epic, ’Ramayana’. How Montaigne is called now? An idiot? No, Sainte-Beuve, the literary critic called him as ‘the wisest French man that ever lived’.

Christ, the Buddha and other religious leaders talked about their blissful spiritual experiences after they attained enlightenment. Only rarely we come to know about their trials and tamasic and rajasic experiences before enlightenment. ‘Saint Augustine’s confessions’ was one rare exception. That was the reason, Montaigne quoted him often in his book of self-discovery.

The tamasic qualities of mud, stone, minerals, metals and plants with sleep, the rajasic qualities of animals with their ferociousness are lying on the surface of our mind, ready to jump and pounce upon anyone, to tear him to pieces and eat him. But our sattvic good qualities of love, equanimity, compassion and co-operation, we have to cultivate consciously. We have to watch and ‘gaze inside’ in the words of Montaigne and see the tamasic and the rajasic and consciously remove them from our mind. One way is to confess or write about the animals and plants inside us and throw them out. That was what Montaigne did.

During the Renaissance and its offspring, the Romantic Movement writers and poets particularly wrote a new kind of poetry of self-accusation, self-condemnation and self-knowledge. Byron was the famous representative of this trend. Coleridge showed him the way by his famous ’Ode on dejection’. Long before the New age gurus discovered their weapon of self-knowledge against blind faith, poets all over Europe had learnt the technique from Montaigne and employed it in their poems and exploited it in all of its perspectives, personal, social, moral and divine as William James showed later in his famous chapter on self-consciousness in his “Principles of psychology”. Once again, the French master paved the way for the American Philosopher to expose the dimensions of self-knowledge by showing them concretely from his own life. The way to wisdom as shown by Socrates and his disciple Montaigne was and is the way of self-awareness of all of one’s own reactions. Modern philosophies of Hume, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, the existential philosophers starting from Husserl and Heidegger to Sartre were all various derivations and elaborate dispositions of the philosophy of self-revelation of Montaigne. A lady fan of Montaigne wisely summed up modern philosophy when she said: Throw away all philosophers except Montaigne because he was the father of them all.

Self-knowledge through self-remembering should lead man to objective knowledge or cosmic consciousness said Gurdjieff in his wonderful and cosmic system of ‘ray of creation’. J.Krishnamurti asked us to go beyond thought and self-awareness to insight and wanted us to do, ‘the exploration into insight’, in his book on the same title. Madame Blavatsky in her monumental work, ‘The secret doctrine’, had taught us not only about ‘Homogenisis’, but their origin in ‘cosmogenisis’. With her detailed system of human bioenergetics of hydrogens, she wanted to convert this esoteric system given in hidden twilight terms into exact clear-cut terms of scientific terminology. Later, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky developed it further.

But Montaigne was shrewd enough to stop with self-knowledge. He did not proceed to divine knowledge or how to acquire it. He was not a mystic like Plato or Plotinus. He knew that such cosmic speculations would be endangering his life. He had learnt his lesson from the lives of Giordano Bruno and Galileo.

Montaigne, with his Essays, kickstarted modern philosophy. And modern philosophy, in its turn, gave birth to modern culture and modern mind, the scientific, rational temperament. Let us see how it happened. Let us explore the story of how Montaigne’s skepticism and self-consciousness cultivated modern philosophy.

In modern philosophy, we see two major strands, the British empiricism and the continental rationalism. Later these two schools combined together and produced phenomenology of Brentano and Husserl and Existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre.

As Russell accused, Descartes following his country-man and predecessor Montaigne, asserted that the only certainty beyond any doubt was his subjectivism. ‘I think therefore I am’. Even god was secondary knowledge.

And Spinoza completed what Descartes started. He removed god from the science, He said, ‘nature itself was god. And god was not transcendental beyond the universe … immanent i.e. inside everything, inside human mind. Consequently man with his rational faculty, could apprehend the infinite knowledge and rules of nature. For him, both were the same. And science was born. A unique destination, a concrete purpose was given to scientists: To know and measure with mathematics the laws of universal nature. And Sir Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation.

Albert Einstein famously stated, “From my twelfth year, my ambition was to understand the mind of god i.e. the laws of nature”. And he discovered his relativity theory and the truth that space and time were not absolute as Newton thought but relative and that space and time were not separate entities but one, space-time.

In the empiricist philosophy, David Hume pointed out that when he gazed inside he didn’t see any single unified self. He saw, on the contrary, only separate fragments of impressions, sensations and thoughts. He forgot one thing: who saw these separate impressions? The answer is his own mind, the reflective consciousness. Human mind alone is capable of such self-consciousness, the sixth degree of consciousness. To stabilize this watching entity or thought is the purpose of man’s life. This is called gnana yoga or the way of knowledge. The whole of Indian philosophy started and developed this idea of the watcher. The seer of Mandukya Upanishad called it Turiya or the fourth (state of consciousness) along with the three animalistic states of consciousness such as the waking, the dreaming and the sleeping. The author of the Gita called it the ‘witnessing consciousness.’ Buddha named it as ‘mindfulness’. All the new age gurus boarded this chariot and rode it in various ways.

Gurdjieff answered Hume. Man, he explained, is not endowed with one unique ‘I’ or atman. In fact he has many ‘I’s. Each thought or emotion or instinct ascended the throne every moment in man’s life and like a master ordered his mind and body to carry out its intentions. The master is absent or each servant sits on the master’s seat and orders him to serve him. The order is reversed now. This is the realistic scene, what Hume saw and said was right. But the scene has to the changed and reversed.

It is man’s duty to watch every one of his ’I’ and see how it deceives him. This act of self-observation was called ‘self-remembering’. When this practice was continued for a long time it will become a new self, the fourth state of consciousness. Man is not born with it but he has to create it consciously, artificially. When all the other ‘I’s are removed or fused into this one ‘I’ of witnessing, one will not be wool gathering. A magnetic centre or real ‘I’ atman will be born or awakened. Hereafter he will be interested only in his ‘work’ upon himself, only on the enhancement and enlightenment of consciousness.

J.Krishnamurti analyzed this process of self-awareness further. He said cryptically. The observer is the observed. At first one, thought will be watching the other. In the second step, the subject will fuse together with the object. The subject and object will become one. As the subject sees the objects in the external world, it sees its own mind as an object and explores the vast inner continent. Later, with empathy, love and compassion, the subject will enter into the essence of every object and other being and feel with it, its pain and happiness. It will see Brahman everywhere, in every object, in every being. Vallalar emphasized this last part of self-knowledge in his system of compassion. He famously said in an immortal verse, “Whenever I see a plant withering for want of water, I thirsted and withered with it.” Now self-consciousness has transformed itself into Brahman–consciousness, finding itself everywhere and in everything and being as saint Thayumanavar revealed his vedantic experience. How to attain god-consciousness through self-consciousness was shown by these masters.

Immanuel Kant applied the technique of self-consciousness in his own mind. He wanted to answer and refute Hume. And the world soul operated through him in a strange new way. He discovered and announced the anatomy and physiology of mind. He found 12 categories in the human mind, 12 filters that filtered all the stimuli that bombarded the mind through the five senses and allowed only those stimuli that aided in its survival. This was a phenomenal scientific discovery in the psychology of mind by Kant. Human mind has got this in- built mechanism. Humans can never transcend these limitations of categories. For they apprehend and perceive reality only through them, he argued.

Hegel came after Kant and proved that there was no such limitation in human reason. The finite mind could understand the infinite mind of god. For there is only one mind, the universal reason. The difference between human reason and divine reason was not one of kind but one of degrees. Otherwise the human reason could not have the idea of god or the capacity to explore that idea. Here Hegel followed the track of Descartes and Spinoza. He explored the idea of self-consciousness so thoroughly in his phenomenology of spirit and expressed that god or the world soul wanted to attain self-consciousness of itself through man, through his mind and its self-consciousness.

Hegel had already written a biography of Christ. He should have meditated in his own thorough way, How a man, Jesus, could have understood the nature of divinity and could claim it? Being a secular philosopher and taking into his consideration, the general trend against the Christian religion and its faith, he avoided Christian terminology and replaced them with his own neologisms. He called god ‘the absolute spirit’, his philosophy ‘absolute idealism’, his method, ‘Dialectics’ He equated nature like Spinoza with reason and he asserted this equation in his famous sentence: The real is rational and the rational is the real.

The idea self-consciousness started by Socrates in the west and developed by Montaigne had come a full circle and saw its pinnacle in Hegel. In the tussle between reason and faith, in the war between religion and science, at last reason and science triumphed after some two thousand years. Montaigne employed a powerful weapon in his method of self-consciousness against blind faith that made most of its followers, bigots and fundamentalists. First it was started by Judaism and later followed by all religions.

Faith in the right god and guru could be a way of knowledge. We cannot deny that but it did not help mankind in two ways: i) the masses remained ignorant and ii) religious institutions wanted to keep them ignorant, illiterate and poor and hence their blockades and obstacles to progress by science and technology.

Montaigne was accused of being disorderly and digressive in his Essays. It was at once a fault in him as well as a virtue, the virtue of vast erudition with a deep desire to give all to the public, to give his encyclopedic knowledge and scholarship. In one sense he was not disorderly, discursive or digressive. For life is disorderly, digressive and unexpectable. Second, in the very preface to his book, he had confessed and warned the reader: “The subject of my book is only myself; I am going to paint my portrait-warts and all”. All through the book he did only one thing: Expose his inner-self and its functions.

(To be continued)