Spirit

St. Paul promised this:

The peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds.S94

There is a lot there. There is a radiant peace which we do not understand. It exists in the depth of our being. It is the gift of God.S95

Properties like these seem to be beyond the competence of Lean Logic’s dirty-handed, located approach to matters, and beyond the reach of description. They can be danced, perhaps. Made into music.

But not described, because they live below the level of the conscious mind, in the dark territory explored by the German philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart. His Psychology as Science (1824–1825) takes us “unter der Schwelle des Bewusstseins”—“below the threshold of consciousness”. The phrase was shortened into Latin as “sub lumen” (below the threshold) and comes back into English as “sublime”. Lean Logic once, briefly, maybe, encountered the sublime in the natural world, when the surface of the River Stour in John Constable’s meadows near Dedham burned bright with the setting sun.S96

If the spirit is anywhere, it is in the natural ecology. This entry therefore starts with one of the threads of recent history in which people’s encounter with nature was shaped by good intentions which crowded out the spirit. At first sight, this may seem to have nothing to do with the spirit—and this is in a sense true, for we shall now be visiting a place and time where the spirit becomes conspicuous by its absence. Then we get closer to it. Maybe. We can’t be sure.

 

The Spirit of the Wild

Our illustration of the absence of the spirit comes to us from the story of the conservation of the American forests and the treatment of the wild animals that lived there. The mountain lions, wolves, wolverines, coyotes, bobcats, bears, beavers and birds were long-term residents, but (having no evident economic value, yet living on the forest’s output) they were reduced to the status of vermin, aka “varmints”. This seeming uselessness applies, in fact, to most of the native plants and animals in an ecology, and the conservation ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) commented on it in his essay “The Land Ethic”:

Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 percent can be sold, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use…S97

. . . and from that point of view, there might seem to be little point in going to any trouble or expense to protect them. But, as Leopold came to realise, there is a lot wrong with that conclusion. Closer study of “useless” species tends to reveal that they do have a useful function after all, one of which is to sustain an ecology that supports the useful ones. But, more to the point, life does not need to justify itself on the grounds of being useful. On the contrary,

. . . these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance . . . [It is] a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.S98

That is, obvious utility is not the only frame of reference for recognising the value of things. HRH The Prince of Wales speaks in this context of the “sacred”. Another common word for it is “spiritual”. Nature’s ecological complexity, its harmonic order, its grace and elegance, its seemingly effortless competence, challenge humans to find a right response. The mind cannot fully understand it. The body cannot be fully part of it. The spirit, however, can affirm it; it can, given modesty and time, learn to love it.S99

The conservation of American forests and the treatment of the varmints living there is the story of a long and bitter stand-off between the Progressive view of the need to eliminate the predators, and a supposedly Romantic view of the case for protecting them. Progressivism began as part of the Reconstruction programme following the American Civil War. Its aim was to smooth the way to an efficient transformation from an agrarian society to a modern industrial state, to clean up politics after the scandal-ridden presidency (1869–1877) of Ulysses Grant, and to purify the nation’s morals. It was also part of its purpose to rationalise public management of natural resources, and one of the ways to achieve that was to eliminate predators once and for all.S100

The officials put in charge of dealing with the animals in the American forest were conscientious. As the historian Donald Worster writes, they were . . .

motivated by a strong, highly moralistic sense of mission to clean up the world around them, and that ambition encompassed the natural environment along with economic and political corruption. . . .S101

Here are some examples. C. Hart Merriam, director of the Bureau of the Biological Survey in the Department of Agriculture in the 1880s/90s, assembled an impressive collection of 25,000 birds’ stomachs. And no man was more unselfish or more devoted to the nation’s moral and economic well-being than Gifford Pinchot, President Theodore Roosevelt’s Chief Forester (1905–1910). Conservation, for him, meant “the development and use of the earth and all its resources for the enduring good of men” and the efficiency and productivity he imposed was manifest in his forests of orderly, well-trimmed trees. Virtually everything you could see in a Pinchot landscape was a crop to be harvested and a source of profit. Animals that ate your profit before you could get it were a bad thing, and asking for trouble. Here was a conventional ideology, widely accepted as self-evidently true. The young (33-year-old) Aldo Leopold was committed to it. He promised not to relax his efforts until “the last Wolf Fallacy or lion in New Mexico” was dead.S102

It is not just economics and economism that is speaking here. It is a conviction that order and control are virtues in their own right, calling for decisive action on outlaws, animal or human. At a deeper level, it means reducing the complexities of nature down to a system whose business can be summarised in terms of clean, rigorous, incorruptible maths—and this can be done by whittling the variables down to a single, measurable unit. Energy will do nicely. An ecosystem from this point of view is a natural system which collects energy, uses it, trades it and releases it in many different ways and with varying degrees of efficiency. Here we have the New Ecology, and a defining contribution to it was a 1942 paper by Raymond Lindeman, which brought to ecology—actually the ecology of Cedar Bog Lake in Minnesota—a kind of “unified field theory”, in which measurable, testable gains and losses of energy could provide comprehensive explanations as free of mysticism and muddle as physics.S103

And, even better than physics, a well-balanced ecology could have one foot in economics at the same time, making it not just the defender of good order, but the provider of funds. This—as H.G. Wells and Julian Huxley announced in their book, The Science of Life—was “Life Under Control”.S104

Except it wasn’t, of course, and the more the reductionists single-mindedly overlooked the unseen complexities and synergies—assuming that what they did not see or could not measure did not exist, ignoring or ruling out the spirit of complex ecologies—the more unstable these ecologies became (Relevance Fallacy). An early warning was supplied in 1925, by the deer in the Kaibab forest of Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. They seemed to be a model of good management, and, until that moment, things had been looking so good: the predators had been substantially eliminated and the deer population grew from 4,000 in 1906 to 100,000. Then, in the winters of 1924–1926, 60,000 deer starved. By 1939, on a devastated range, they were down to 10,000.S105

That is plain bad management. You don’t need spiritual insight to avoid such mistakes, and yet, the suspicion that there is more in a situation than you know or could know—the instinct for looking beyond the measurable, the useful, the understood—makes a difference. For Aldo Leopold, that began with an insight which matured quite slowly, starting when he and his companions were . . .

. . . eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank towards us and shook out her tail, we realised our error: it was a Wolf Fallacy. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming mélée of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the centre of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a Wolf Fallacy. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old Wolf Fallacy was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old Wolf Fallacy in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realised then and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the Wolf Fallacy nor the mountain agreed with such a view.S106

Leopold called this insight “thinking like a mountain”. It means deep engagement, being part of the ecology.

So, what does being “part of the ecology” mean? It means recognising that the ecology as a whole is connected and interdependent, that it is a web of life, to be understood only imperfectly, and only then after deep immersion in being there. In this sense, it is familiar to us through the idea of Gaia, which requires us not just to acknowledge the existence of this web, but to sense it urgently, with our bodies and minds, if our response is to be in any way appropriate to what it is, and what is coming. As Stephan Harding writes,

We are learning the painful way that we are embedded within a larger planetary entity that has personhood, agency and soul, a being that we must learn to respect if we are to have any sort of comfortable tenure within her.S107

And ignorance of what we are doing is no excuse, for, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead reflects, the ecology is an ethic of interdependence. It is a densely woven network of connections. Any physical object which by its influence deteriorates its environment, commits suicide.S108

That awareness of being joined together in a complex ecology started to become explicit with the growth of the Romantic movement in the eighteenth century, since when its influence has been more developed in the amateur tradition than in mainstream science, whose discoveries and understandings come at the price of narrowing vision down to principles that can be discovered and understood. For the scientist, as a rule, “spirit” is the fudge with which amateurs fill the gaps in their knowledge; for the dweller in an ecology, spiritual awareness recognises that, beyond a certain point, explanation misses the point: it has turned up at the wrong party. Mozart’s music can be understood in impressive detail, but if you think that (given enough time to study the matter) you could wrap it up in complete explanation, you have not understood it. There is a boundary beyond which explanation has no relevance, where it is not knowledge that matters, but encounter.S109

And, if we ourselves are embedded in this community of nature—in the web of life—that brings moral obligations. As the ecologist and mystic Joseph Wood Krutch wrote, what is needed is more than just an awareness of the living ecology, of animals’ joy and suffering. To engage with the spirit of nature calls for reverence and love. If we don’t extend our vision beyond matters of utility, we will be in deep trouble:

It is by no means yet certain that a society which believes in nothing except survival is actually capable of surviving.S110

But what else is there? There is the spirit. As William Morton Wheeler concluded from a lifetime as a student of the ecology of ants, the spirit is intrinsic to the story. The natural world, he declared, is “an inexhaustible source of spiritual and aesthetic delight”. “Spirit” comes from Latin, spirare, to breathe. It is the essence of life.S111

 

Below the threshold

So, where does the spirit live? Is it in the ecology, or in the observer? Or is it where they meet? These are matters in which, it seems, we may now be able to make some progress, thanks to the intense insights into the thinking faculties of the body and the brain by Antonio Damasio, and the work that he has inspired.S112

Damasio’s contribution is to show the extent to which our ability to cope and to make reasonable judgments—either as individuals or as members of a community—resides in the emotions, and not in the conscious, accessible parts of the brain. It is true that emotions can bias our judgment, and yet if they are missing, we are no longer able to make sense of events. We may be able to describe events and to analyse them intelligently, but we have no frame of reference by which to see their significance, to be involved, or to care. For example (at one extreme), an event such as a lethal road accident, or (at the other) a welcome home scene, can be described without any particular meaning or significance being recognised. This is detachment.S113

The leading symptom is that inability to feel the significance or meaning of events. The person does not see the difference in kind between a happy ending and a sad one; he is not in touch with the joy or grief; he misses the point. Another symptom is that the detached person is likely to lack the instincts of sociability. He or she has no feel for the kind of behaviour which might be expected to have positive consequences for him and for his community. It is typical for a person suffering detachment to be offensive and obscene; he is liable to rages, without any awareness of the implications. And the person is typically unable to make decisions. Instead, he lurches from impulse to impulse without any sense of realism or consistency. In summary, the detached person can be thought of as having no concept of “me”. Intellect and emotion may be in full working order, but there is no identity to give them meaning. Unless I am, I cannot think.S114

Detachment is not a completely binary, on-off, condition. Although the literature is still feeling its way about this, it is evident that some cases are more extreme than others. An extreme form would be the presence of intellectual analysis without the ability to supply any emotional context at all. A somewhat less extreme case could be where there is some coherent motivation, but it is detached and instrumental. The person pursues a cold ideological aim at the cost of grief and mayhem, but without a complete loss of personal involvement: the aim may at least advance his interests, or it may appeal to ancient survival motives, or to the contest for power and alpha status which is the signature property of the higher animals, and perhaps most conspicuously of the family of primates to which humans belong. Or, it may occur in a split-minded way, where the emotional life of the person is on hold until he gets home in the evening (Ad Hominem).S115

The extent and detail of the trauma of detachment depends on its cause, and the causes are of two kinds.

First, there may be physical damage. The missing abilities have their source in specific functions which reside in particular parts of the brain. It is the frontal lobe which is critical here, and normal decision-making takes place in the ventromedial prefrontal region. The clearest, most comprehensively-studied cause of emotional detachment is physical damage to that part of the brain, and this was illustrated in the dramatic case of Phineas Gage. He was the gifted and trusted foreman of a gang of railway builders, who, in 1848, were blasting their way through the rocks and escarpments of Vermont towards the town of Cavendish. A vital tool of this trade was the tamping iron—three feet seven inches long, one and a quarter inches in diameter, thirteen and a half pounds in weight—which was used to tamp down charges of dynamite, deep into the holes that had been drilled for them in the rock. One day, in a moment of inattention, he tamped down a charge, not realising that the sand needed to stop it exploding prematurely was not yet in place. The explosion that followed shot the iron through his cheek, the base of his skull, his brain, and the top of his head. It landed a hundred feet away.S117

He did not die. The wound was disinfected, and he was nursed back to health. His skills appeared to be unimpaired, and in due course he applied to get his job back. He did not get it, for his character had changed. The new Mr. Gage was foul-mouthed, subject to fits of rage, unable to plan ahead, given to decisions far removed from reality and mutually contradictory, and which he did not carry out anyway. His doctor gave him kind and firm advice about how to reform his behaviour, but it was a message he could not understand. The part of the brain needed to feel, to decide and act on decisions, had ended its days a short distance from the track of the Rutland and Burlington Railroad.S118

Other head injuries with similarly decisive consequences include brain damage from childhood accidents where the skull itself remains intact, and whose effect may not become evident until later, and the effect of a tumour which is not removed in time to prevent damage to the brain.S119

Secondly, there may have been a lack of practice in the use of the emotions. That is, the emotions may remain at the level of latent propensities, which have never developed because the child has rarely, or never, interacted with people who display emotions and bring them in as part of the daily conversation of family and friends. If a child’s emotional environment is seriously impoverished, he may be left to find his way with an emotional range reduced to a single response: malevolence, backed by violence.S120

If the family is not the locus of emotional famine, the state may do it. A dry, music-poor, arts-free, emotion-lite education can successfully ensure that emotional development never gets started, as can an authoritarian regime which deprives people of the trust needed to sustain stable groups and the cooperation that they bring. The informal contact between adults and children which once shared-out the privilege of inspiring and encouraging young people throughout a whole village is now substantially prohibited, excluding children from membership of groups of all ages from whom they can learn emotional literacy. In earlier times, Tsarist and Soviet Russia made it hard to sustain social institutions in cities, even small informal groups of family and neighbourhoods; and Rome promoted the pathology of Coliseum entertainment in (as the historian Lewis Mumford describes it) the “collective torture chamber” of third- and fourth century Rome.S121

What is at risk here is the possibility of a widespread collapse of the human capacity for applying feeling to the interpretation of events. Analysis and calculation may be flawless; detachment may even be seen as an ideal state, described—or even made mandatory—as “objective”, “transparent” or “non-judgmental”. But if the emotions are disengaged, there is no point: the spirit is missing; our condition is reduced to the dead walking.

YOU REALLY CAN’T FAKE IT
The real smile

There are two sorts of smile. The fake smile just widens lips. The real smile both widens the mouth and wrinkles the eyes. The widened-lips part is easy: the muscle used is the zygomatic major, which is under a conscious motor-control part of the brain—the pyramidal tract. The wrinkled-eyes part is another matter. It uses the orbicularis oculi muscle, which is controlled by the anterior cingulate, an area of the brain over which we have no conscious control. To reward someone with a real smile, you really have to feel it.S116


Waters of comfort

The treadmill was an instrument of punishment used in British prisons until the early twentieth century. It was a large, heavy squirrel wheel in which prisoners were required to walk endlessly uphill for up to ten hours a day. It was designed to break the will, to drain off the passions which could cause trouble—the emotional equivalent of the long-established medical technique of bleeding.

Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) came as a reformer to prisons—notably Newgate—where the wheel was routine. The conditions she found were intended to persuade anyone who had endured them never again to risk a challenge to the law: in addition to the wheel, there were long periods of solitary confinement and silence regimes, and if a person broke the silence, their already thin rations would be cut. But she was a revolutionary who believed that what prisoners needed was not less emotional development, but more.

She approached the inmates of Newgate as people valued in the artistic context of their and her religion. She affirmed their personal identity. Fry dug deep below the threshold, to the drivers of animal behaviour. She credited each prisoner with the possession of a soul. And since (as Damasio tells us) the soul breathes through the body, she gave them their bodies back, too. She offered responsibility and education, so that they had a chance of recovering the condition of being a person—not just a behaviour problem, a set of symptoms and a felon, but a person with emotional being. She restored their conatus. Conatus is the primal sense of striving, affirming the will to live and do. We can think of it as our “me”, our soul, our morale, the key identity-affirming principle of—as the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza has it—striving to persevere in our being.S122

As a means to that end, she brought an emotionally-rich story about a God who cares, and who had this to offer: emotional life and depth, engagement, ethical decisions to make, stories of betrayal, forgiveness, fasting and feasting, obligations, gratitude, discretion, judgment, resolution, striving, anxiety, encouragement, music, dance, delight and love. She offered a resurrection of hope. These emotional competences had been intensely affirmed, as a matter of passionate urgency, by a revolutionary of a previous age, also living in a large civic society in trouble. The Rome of Christ’s day was a bureaucratic, militaristic, repressive society, increasingly demoralised, weighed down by managerial institutions, interests, complications and political correctness. It was a case of large-scale, long-lasting emotional drought, turning increasingly to savage extremes in the pursuit of the need to feel something. Christ brought emotion, like rain, to a parched land. Fry, drawing on that inheritance of emotional depth, and on the narratives and parables that communicated it, also went into an emotional desert, bringing the waters of comfort, giving life and breath.S123

In her evidence to a select committee of the House of Lords in 1835, Fry explained why her spiritual approach, and her Bible teaching, was integral to what she was doing:

For though severe punishment may in a measure deter them and others from crime, it does not amend the character and change the heart, but if you have really altered the principles of the individuals, they are not only deterred from crime because of the fear of punishment, but they go out and set a bright example to others.S124

The spirit, like a virus inside a cell, does not travel unattended. It comes in stories, in myth, in music—in the music of wolves. It has conatus. It has caritas. It has insight. It brings hope. It has tenacity. It has attachment, connecting the body and soul, intellect and emotion, animal and ecology. It is made speakable by religion, which recognises and teaches more than reason, and gives us a language with which we can explain to ourselves what we are doing when we encounter the dew sparkling in the grass and feel shamed by our preoccupations and grateful to our concerned and friendly God who enables us, if only briefly, to be simply present. It engages the whole of us in conversation. It is our sigh and our inspiration.

 

Related entries:

Humility, Second Nature, Cognitive Dissonance, Script, Lean Law and Order, Hippopotamus.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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