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Chapter VI | The Way of Negation

§ 1. The way of negation

A strange and striking characteristic of religion, and certainly one which makes it distasteful to the average sensual man, is a tendency to what may be described as negation. We are so often bidden to suppress human desires, to reject human pleasures, to renounce the world and all its ways. This tendency can be pushed to extremes, and we find religions hostile, not merely to sensuous pleasures and worldly ambitions, but even to human wisdom and human virtue, not to mention human beauty.

It may seem artificial to use a logical word like ‘negation’ to describe this type of religious attitude. Why not speak more simply of self-denial or self-renunciation? The answer is that these words are still too narrow. Those who follow the negative way—the via negationis—to the end are not content merely with renouncing, or even annihilating, the self. In the extreme case they regard all human life as an illusion and deny reality alike to the world and to God.

The most extreme negation is to be found in the religions of the East. In these there are also more moderate views, but the general direction is clear enough. Lao Tzu, for example, speaks thus: ‘The five colours blind the human eye; the five notes (of music) deafen the human ear; the five tastes spoil the human mouth; racing and hunting madden the human mind; the highly-prized treasures degrade human conduct’. This might perhaps be taken as a moderate view showing hostility only to worldly pleasures. But others go so far as to tell us that the highest truth is ‘absolute emptiness’ and that we should seek to attain the goal of ‘absolute vacuity’. Wisdom and bliss are to be found in ‘the state without a specific reality’. Here the way of negation is not a way to anything positive: it is pursued for its own sake and it ends in nothing.

The goal of religion always corresponds with a view of God, and it has been said that ail the major religions of the East affirm what in the West would be regarded as atheism. Such a pronouncement is too sweeping; it is manifestly in need of explanation and expansion; but there can be no doubt that Buddhism, at least in some of its forms, may not unreasonably be described as atheistic.

In Christianity and the religions of the West negation is seldom carried to such lengths, but the same tendencies can be observed there also. How often have men been told that they must mortify, not only sensuous desires (however innocent) and worldly ambitions (however moderate), but even the most harmless of personal affections I This is a commonplace of much devotional, and especially monastic, writing. According to St. John of the Cross this deadness to the world is ‘the dark night’ of the senses which the soul must enter in its journey to God; but there is a second and still deeper darkness to be faced—a darkness not of the sensuous, but of the spiritual or rational, part of the soul. Understanding, memory, and will must all alike be emptied or darkened; and in this second darkness the rational part of the soul is deprived of the light of reason or ‘to speak more clearly’ is blinded. We are even told that solid and perfect spirituality consists ‘in the annihilation of all sweetness in God, in aridity, distaste, and trial, which is the true spiritual cross’. The soul is compared to a window which must be free of stains and mist, wholly pure and clean, if the light of God is to shine through it. It looks as if the way of salvation were the way of complete blankness.

This extreme language is at times watered down, perhaps not quite consistently, to mean little more than the utter abandonment of self-love for the love of God. Nor should it be forgotten that for St. John of the Cross this way of darkness is not an end, but only a means to perfect union. Nevertheless the unregenerate may have more sympathy with the good feminine sense of St.. Teresa when she says ‘It would be a bad business for us if we could not seek God until we were dead to the world’.

There is also a way of negation which consists in aiming, not at a blank zero, but at what may be described as a minus quantity. The mortification of all desire and the rejection of all pleasure may become the pursuit of pain, the glorification of suffering. This is a yet darker aspect of religion from which Christianity has not been free. As a form of masochism it is primarily a problem for abnormal psychology; yet at its best it has been ennobled by a wish, however misguided, to share in the sufferings of Christ. St. John of the Cross, who is himself not immune from these tendencies, does at least recognize their danger. Where men kill themselves with penances, and weaken themselves with fasts, by performing more than their frailty can bear, this, he tells us, may be ‘no more than the penance of beasts, to which they are attracted, exactly like beasts, by the desire and pleasure which they find therein’. He considers this to be a form of ‘spiritual gluttony’ and his remedy for it is obedience to a spiritual superior—a cure which to some of us may seem almost as dangerous as the disease.

§ 2. Self-love and negation

The negative way in religion is often connected with metaphysical views about reality, but perhaps it can best be approached from the side of action. Let us begin by considering enlightened self-love. This is below the level both of morality and of religion; and since we are all moved by self-love, even if it may not always be enlightened, any negation present in it may perhaps be easier to understand.

When we follow enlightened self-love in our actions, what we pursue is our own good. Our own good may be described as happiness—our own happiness. Many thinkers have regarded happiness as an excess of pleasant over painful feeling distributed over a whole life. This attaches too much importance to pleasant feeling, which is only one object of desire among many others; and happiness is better described as the maximum satisfaction of desire distributed over a whole life. It may also be described as the maximum harmonization of our ends; for the objects of our desire are ends, and these may clash with one another. To seek such a goal is reasonable for a being who, although affected by momentary impulses and desires, is not directly determined by them like an animal, but has the power of looking beyond them to the satisfaction of other desires in the future.

A life of enlightened self-love should not be regarded as a purely selfish life which shows no consideration for others. The ordinary man has desires for human society; he wants to co-operate with his fellows in work and play; he likes to give affection as well as to receive it; and he can be interested in the future happiness of those he loves even if he will not be alive to share it. He may also become aware quite early in life that if he shows consideration for others, they are more likely to show consideration for him. We need not describe him as selfish: he may be intelligent enough to see that systematic selfishness is likely to impoverish his own life. But he is self-centred: if he seeks the happiness of others, his main reason for doing so is that in this way he is likely in the long run to get what he wants, whether for itself (where his desires are generous) Or as a means to something else. He has no use for a standard which may be independent of his desire for his own happiness.

To lead this kind of life successfully requires intelligence and a firm will and some mastery over appetite. A man of this type may believe that he will be happiest if at times he removes the check upon impulse, for there must be spontaneity as well as control; but he will repress inclinations likely to interfere with his happiness in the long run. The life of enlightened self-love demands some sort of discipline.

It is obvious that one and the same principle of self-love may be applied very differently according to our different circumstances, our different temperaments, our different views of the world. In seeking our own happiness our motto, if we are by nature adventurous, may be ‘Live dangerously’; if we are timid, it may be ‘Safety first’.

In this second motto we begin to find what we are looking for—the way of negation on the level of self-love. Negation is in a sense present in the discipline or repression of refractory impulses, but there it is only a means—even the man who lives dangerously may have to repress his fears; and it has been said that if you want to live dangerously, you should do so as carefully as possible. But if we are timid—if we find the world a vale of tears in which pain prevails over pleasure and frustration over achievement—we may seek our happiness in moderating all our desires. If we can't have what we like, we may try to like what we have. We are still seeking the maximum satisfaction possible, but negation, so to speak, has begun to affect our goal.

This moderate negation is an ever-recurrent attitude, and it finds its classical expression in the philosophy of Epicurus. It is most prominent, not in ages of expansion and achievement, but in periods of frustration and decay. Naturally enough, it does not appeal to the young and the hopeful: it is the philosophy of middle age. There is a well-beaten track which begins with sensuality and passes through disgust to a rather smug detachment. The pilgrims who tread this road we have always with us, even though they may be unconscious that it has ever been trodden before.

The extreme limit of this negative attitude is utter pessimism both about ourselves and about our world. Desire leads only to pain, effort only to frustration, thought only to a heightened awareness of the horrors of life. The one thing that a wise man can do is to abandon thinking, to cease from willing, to get rid of desire. We have nothing to hope for but death and annihilation and the end of trouble. This is the everlasting NO. The negative goal of self-love is a dreamless sleep.

§ 3. Morality and negation

Enlightened self-love has often been mistaken for morality, but there is a sense in which the life of self-love and the moral life are fundamentally opposed. A good man is one who takes the moral law as his supreme principle of life to which all other principles, including that of self-love, must be subordinated: he seeks his own happiness only so far as this may be compatible with obedience to the moral law. The man who makes self-love his supreme principle obeys the moral law only so far as this may be consistent with his own happiness. He may be a respectable citizen or an average sensual man or an out-and-out villain, but he has no part or share in morality. What morality seeks is not my happiness or my advantage or my good, but the good; and the good is not determined by what I happen to want or even by the maximum possible satisfaction of my desires. Morality differs from self-love in not being self-centred.

It must not be thought that this is already the way of negation in morality—that it is hostile to desire as such and condemns, not only pleasure, but even happiness. It does say that a man is not morally good in virtue of being good at furthering his own interests, and that a good man may find it his duty to give up his happiness and even his life for the sake of some higher good; but surely we all know this already. It says too that a good man may have to repress and discipline his desires, as must happen even on the level of self-love. But it does not mean that it can never be right for a man to seek his own pleasure or pursue his own happiness. Still less does it mean that morality consists in finding out what you want to do and then doing the opposite. On the contrary, a man has every right to pursue his own happiness so long as he does not transgress the moral law. Indeed it may be one of his duties to do so inasmuch as gloom is apt to be a source of bad temper in himself and distress in others.

The way of negation in morals is found when the discipline or repression of desires is practised, not as a necessary means, but as an end in itself. The moral law is then supposed to forbid all pleasure and all pursuit of happiness. This view, like that of Epicureanism, may arise when we live in an age of frustration and are pessimistic about our world or disgusted with its pleasures. Indeed it is not always clear whether it is a moral principle or merely one of self-love. We find it in the Stoic ideal of ‘apathy’, which is not an ideal of indolence, but of complete freedom from pleasure, desire, anxiety, and fear. This is not an ignoble doctrine, but it is a mistaken one. A good man's actions admittedly must not be determined by his desires; but this does not imply that he should have no desires or even that he should never satisfy them.

Complete freedom from desire can be found only in death, and the logical conclusion of this negative morality in its extremest form would be suicide. The Stoics were willing to go through this ‘open door’ in order to preserve virtue when life was too beset with obstacles, but they did not glorify suicide for its own sake. To do so would be to abandon the moral struggle altogether in favour of non-existence. This is a counsel of despair, and it seems to bring us back again to the negative goal, not of morality, but of self-love.

§ 4. Self-love and religion

Self-love is ubiquitous and seeks to insinuate itself even into Paradise. Its crudest form in religion is found when men serve God in the hope that he will bless them with earthly goods, with food and raiment, flocks and herds, sons and daughters. But its essential character is not altered when they are willing to endure hardships in order to enjoy the blessedness of Heaven or to escape the pangs of Hell. A long-term prudence is still distinct from morality, and when it passes for religion, it may even become nauseating.

In religion, as elsewhere, self-love need not be so crude. It may take subtle forms and mingle itself with higher motives so that good men are often confused both in what they practise and in what they preach. For John Bunyan as for St. Bernard fear of the wrath to come was at least the first motive which induced men to turn their backs upon the world and give themselves up to a religious life. Even in the search for personal salvation self-love may be more prominent than the love of God, and the language commonly used is too often ambiguous.

To be free from these ambiguities, alike in theory and in practice, is as important as it is unfortunately rare. To attain such freedom is no easy task, but what interests us here is something simpler. We are concerned with the negative way in religion, and it should be manifest that restraint of desires and renunciation of the world so far as these proceed, whether intelligently or stupidly, from self-love are without religious, as well as without moral, value.

The same judgement must hold if self-love is the dominant motive in seeking a blessedness which is even more negative than the way to it. In such terms we may perhaps describe, at least in some cases, the salvation or emancipation that is to be found in Nirvana. When Sariputta had asserted that Nirvana is blessedness, he was asked ‘How can there be blessedness since here is no feeling?’ His answer was ‘It is in this that it is blessedness, that here is no feeling’. This ideal may correspond to a longing for unbroken rest after toil and disillusionment and despair; but so far as it is sought merely from such a longing, it too is without religious value.

It may be thought that a desire of this type cannot spring from self-love since it is a desire for something that comes very near annihilation of the self. This objection seems to be merely verbal. When we despair of the world and seek to be free from its pain, our search may be not only self-centred, but even selfish. A policy of escapism is no less self-centred because it proceeds to the uttermost extreme.

§ 5. The negative way in religion

Only when some of these ambiguities have been dispelled is it possible to consider the negative way in religion. So far as this way is religious, it can have nothing to do with self-love. We have seen that morality cannot be self-centred. Still less can religion be self-centred, unless it is to fall below the level of morality. The essential thing about religion is that it should be, not self-centred, but God-centred. When we ask what is the place of negation in religion, we must assume that the religious life is centred in God.

If we make this assumption, the life of self-love and the religious life are fundamentally opposed to one another. The man who leads the life of self-love has as his supreme principle ‘My will be done’. The religious man has as his supreme principle ‘Not my will, but Thy will be done’. This emphasis on will, it should be noted, is found even in the Christian mystics who lay most stress on contemplation. In the last chapter St. Teresa was quoted on this point, and here is another quotation from St. John of the Cross. Speaking of the supernatural union of likeness that springs from love, he says that ‘it comes to pass when the two wills—namely, that of the soul and that of God—are conformed together in one, and there is naught in the one that is repugnant to the other’.

It is clear enough that the religious man must be ready to give up his pleasure, his happiness, his personal affections, even his life, if this should be in accordance with God's will; and it is foolish to imagine that such readiness would be possible without some discipline of his desires. Everything said by the ascetics under this head is so far fully justified: it accords with what we know even of morality. But the same mistake found in regard to morality may also be found here. It is a fallacy to suppose that this doctrine tells us what God's will is. We have no right to argue from it that God wills every religious man to be miserable in this life. Still less have we any right to argue that the best way to discipline desires is to root them out.

The way of negation in religion, as in morals, is to be found when the discipline or repression of desires is practised, not as a necessary means, but as an end in itself. But in this matter there are all sorts of degrees, and we may suspect that discipline, even when professedly it is only a means, can be so disproportionate that it becomes something very like an end. There is much more to this question than elementary confusions of thought, and we have to respect the experience of religious men, especially in regard to rules of discipline which may be repugnant to our natural inclinations. But when they tell us on authority that such and such is the will of God, we can only say that we must have some light to distinguish the priests of Jehovah from those of Baal, the ministers of God from the envoys of Satan. When they condescend to argue with us, as the wisest among them do, we must take their arguments seriously; and if these are confused, we must point this out. We must also hold that anyone who tells us that God wills men to do what is wrong is clearly mistaken. Thus, for example, when St. John of the Cross tells us that all the affections which the soul has for creatures are pure darkness in the eyes of God, and backs this up by the argument that ‘he that loves a creature becomes as low as that creature, and, in some ways, lower’, we may not find this very convincing—not even when he adds that as light is incompatible with darkness, so the love of creatures is incompatible with the love of God. Similarly the love of beauty incurs his condemnation because when compared with the beauty of God the beauty of creatures is the height of deformity. This is the way of negation, and it is easy to see how he comes to his conclusion that the only method by which the soul can prepare itself for union with God is to strip itself of everything. It would be truer to say that we should love all creatures because they are creatures of God, and that he who loves God must love his neighbour. We may charitably suppose that he has confused two quite different propositions—the proposition that the love of creatures should be wholly subordinated to the love of God, and the proposition that the love of creatures is excluded by the love of God. St. John seems to waver between the two without observing how different they are.

So far as the problem of spiritual discipline is concerned only with means, it is an empirical one; but with all respect for the experience of those who have given themselves entirely to the religious life, we may doubt whether the total repression of sense and desire, not to speak of thinking and willing, is most likely to lead to spiritual progress. When we have exorcised one devil, we may only get seven more devils in its place. This is the great danger of the way of negation even when an exaggerated discipline is said to be adopted only as a means. It is a still greater danger if we suppose it to be God's will that our will should be broken rather than transformed.

In the extreme case the annihilation, or at least the complete emptying, of the will is made the goal of religion. This is especially associated with some Eastern religions, although it must be remembered that even the most extreme views may, whether consciously or through mere confusion, admit positive elements on the way to blank negation.

The way of complete negation, so far as it springs from a pessimistic longing to escape from a world of sin and trouble, can hardly be considered as other than a special manifestation of self-love. Is it possible for life with a purely negative goal to be God-centred rather than self-centred and so to be one form of religious life?

The ideal aimed at in a religious life is always mirrored in a corresponding conception of God or—if you prefer to put it the other way about—the conception of God is mirrored in a corresponding religious ideal. When a writer like St. John of the Cross empties the religious life of all personal affections, he so far empties also the conception of God. With him this emptying may be only a means; but where emptiness is the recognized end of the religious life, there has to be a corresponding emptiness in the conception of God. This is presumably one reason why Buddhism, at least in some of its forms, has to be atheistic.

When the goal of religion is emptiness, and God—or at least the supreme reality—is also emptiness, can we say that the religious life is God-centred? Clearly in a sense we can, for it is centred in emptiness and emptiness is God—the only God there is. It would be harsh to define religion in such terms as to exclude this way of life, especially if we find in it many characteristics which we unhesitatingly regard as religious. Apart from questions of verbal usage, it is dangerous to pass judgement on these matters without a much fuller knowledge than most of us possess; but at least some points seem to be fairly clear.

The positive and negative ways may coincide over a great part of their course if there must be in every form of religion the self-control and self-denial which are also an essential factor in moral goodness. Both ways may be exposed to the aberration of making self-discipline and even self-mortification something very like an end in itself. Yet the ultimate goals are manifestly incompatible. I have taken the ideal of religion to be perfect and harmonious and active life in union with a perfect, harmonious, and active whole. To those who follow the negative way this ideal, together with any belief in the grace of God, is based on illusion—on a false and anthropomorphic vision of reality. If we accept the Western ideal, the negative way cannot but be regarded as a failure in insight or in faith, a distrust of life and of reality, and so in itself, and not merely in its accidents, a religious aberration, however disinterested and worthy of respect. We may even find in it a self-contradiction so far as a love of emptiness must be an emptying of love. But we have also to remember that what is conceived as negative may be felt as positive, and that the way of negation may be one way of conceiving a mystery that is beyond human understanding.

§ 6. Must willing be self-centred?

It is possible to argue that all willing must be self-centred, and that consequently what has been said here about morality and religion is nonsense. If this is true, we cannot cease to be self-centred without ceasing to be, and the only way to escape self-centredness is to end the life, not merely of the body, but of the soul.

The argument may be supposed to run like this. Even if I could say that I took the moral law as the supreme principle of my actions, seeking to obey its positive injunctions and to refrain from everything which it does not at least permit, it would still be I who willed my actions. Hence my goal must still be self-realization, and the realization of my will must still give me personal satisfaction. In the long run we do only what we happen to want; and morality and religion alike must be as self-centred as any other human choice.

This view contains a number of assertions which must be dealt with very summarily.

First of all, we have a statement of the tautology ‘I will what I will’. This no one would be anxious to deny. We cannot infer from it anything about the character of my will. In particular, we cannot infer that my will must be self-centred, unless by saying that it is self-centred we mean merely to repeat the tautology that it wills what it wills.

Secondly, we are asked to infer that if I succeed in doing what I will, this will give me personal satisfaction. No doubt it will, and this satisfaction may be present even when I am miserable because I have had to thwart desires and sacrifice happiness. But if the inference is that in acting morally I act only in order to secure a feeling of personal satisfaction, this is not even plausible. I cannot obtain the feeling of moral satisfaction unless I act for the sake of doing what is right. As to the term ‘self-realization’, it is so ambiguous that it is better avoided. In the present context to talk of self-realization is either to repeat the tautology ‘I will what I will’, or else it is to make a fallacious inference from the tautology.

The real sting of the argument lies in the assertion that I do only what I happen to want. This merely sweeps aside dogmatically the distinctions we have made. Broadly speaking, men act either on impulse or for the sake of their interests or for the sake of the moral law. Only the first of these is properly described as doing what we happen to want—into both the others there enters a factor of reasoned judgement. Anyone who infers that because I will what I will, therefore my actions must be determined by impulse, falls into a patent fallacy. And what he says has no bearing on the difference between self-love and morality.

There are many who dislike talk about the moral law, especially when no attempt is made to define it, and we shall have to return to this question later. At present it is necessary to stick to the level of common sense. On this level we must assume that men sometimes know, or at least reasonably believe, that some things are right for them to do and others wrong; and, furthermore, that ‘what is right’ does not mean ‘to my advantage’ any more than ‘what is wrong’ means ‘to my disadvantage’. This is the basis of the distinction between self-love and obedience to the moral law, between a self-centred life which seeks my own advantage and a moral life which seeks to follow a standard independent of my own advantage. If there are any who deny the distinction, there is no more to be said—except that they are not entitled to infer that I always seek my own advantage from the mere tautology that I always will what I will.

Hence there seems to be nothing in the objection that all willing must be self-centred, and I mention it only because it so often takes in the simple-minded. I would add that what a good man seeks is that the moral law should be realized, and only incidentally that it should be realized through him. He is specially concerned with goodness in his own life only because this is the only life he can make good; for a good life is one that must be freely willed by the person who lives it.

All this can be applied to religion. What the religious man seeks is that God's will should be done, and only incidentally that it should be done through him. He welcomes consolation as a gift of God's grace, but he does not seek to do God's will for the sake of consolation. And the tautologous assertion that he wills what he wills has no bearing on the truth or the falsity of these statements.

§ 7. Nihilism

The way of negation can be understood most easily as an ideal of action; but corresponding to ideals of action there are always theories, or at least assumptions, about the nature of the world and—in the case of religion—about the nature of God. Even if theory springs out of practice, it may also react upon practice. Thus where emphasis is laid on God's transcendence, it may seem natural to regard the world as worthless or evil; and the task of religion is to turn from the world and seek satisfaction in God alone. If God is taken to be immanent in the world, the duty of the religious man may be to live in the world and play his humble part in a divine enterprise. Here we can find the difference between world-denying and world-accepting religions. A world-rejecting religion is apt to regard all earthly desires as obstacles to the religious life and so to be rooted out. A world-accepting religion, on the other hand, assumes that the satisfaction of natural desires may find its place in a disciplined religious life. The first way—the negative way—may become harsh and intolerant, while the second may end in the abandonment of religion altogether.

The philosophical theories of immanence and transcendence are too complicated to be dealt with shortly, and it may be doubted whether if we accept one, we must reject the other. Indeed those who venture into theological speculation may find themselves impelled to accept views which, if they were concerned with finite objects, would be self-contradictory. But to the modern man of the West the way of negation in religion seems so strange that it may be illuminating to sketch briefly one metaphysical theory of the universe which is its ground or background. I am indebted here to a remarkable essay published by Professor Northrop of Yale University in a volume entitled Philosophy—East and West. As it would take too long to explain his elaborate terminology, I must try to put the main point in simpler language of my own. I may be unable to make it intelligible to those not already versed in Greek philosophy—or perhaps even to those who are; but it came to me as a flash of light, and those who fail to grasp my exposition may be referred to Professor Northrop himself.

This theory may be called ‘nihilism’, and it can be summed up paradoxically by saying that what is is what is not.

We start with the assumption that only what is immediately apprehended is real. Since only what is sensed can be immediately apprehended, only what is sensed can be real. What we sense are the objects of our five senses (such as colours and sounds) and the objects of introspection (such as images and feelings). Objects of this kind we may call ‘sensed objects’, and they alone are real.

All we can see is colour, and all we can hear is sound. But we have objects of another kind as well. This colour that I see I take to be the colour of a chair or a table, the colour of a body. A very little reflexion will show us that a body is not immediately apprehended: it is not a sensed object, but rather a ‘postulated’ object—an object postulated to account for what we see. The material bodies of our common-sense beliefs and the mysterious electrons of the scientist are all alike postulated objects. So too are the triangles of the mathematician and the space of the physicist, and also the universals (or Forms) of Plato and Aristotle. Similarly, mind is a postulated object, and so is God. None of these objects can be immediately apprehended or directly sensed. We get at them by some kind of thinking even if this must start from what we sense.

For the believer in nihilism all postulated objects are unreal—presumably in the sense that they are merely fictions or creations of our own minds: nowadays we might call them ‘logical constructions’. Although it is expressed in different language, this view is very like the modern positivistic doctrine known as ‘phenomenalism’, to which we shall have to return later.

For the present purpose we may ignore postulated objects. We come to the distinctive doctrine of nihilism if we turn back to the sensed objects themselves.

I have said that all we can see is colour and all we can hear is sound. But this should not be taken to mean, as it is by David Hume and some of his modern followers, that colours and sounds are distinct existences—that they are, so to speak, atomic objects isolated from one another. On the contrary, what we apprehend immediately by sight is a continuous field which is white here and blue there and shades off into something without any colour at all—on the periphery of our vision we are all colour-blind. In more technical language the object of sight is a differentiated continuum; and the same is true of all the objects we sense, whether by our five senses or by means of introspection.

Now within the differentiated continuum of sense we can attend, and we usually do attend, to the differentiations—that is, to the different colours and sounds and so on. But we can also relax attention and ignore the differentiations. What we then sense—it is still supposed to be a matter of sense only—is an undifferentiated continuum. We are perhaps at times aware of something rather like this as we sink gradually into sleep.

Colours and sounds and all other differentiations of our sensuous continuum are transitory and evanescent, as was pointed out long ago by Plato. From this it is concluded—as he also concluded, though it is rather a big jump—that the differentiations are unreal or illusory. The only thing that is real is the undifferentiated continuum, a blank uncharacterized reality which is barely to be distinguished from nothing.

We can follow the same line of thought about the objects of introspection. The feelings and images we introspect are also mere transitory differentiations of a continuum and so are unreal. What is real in the self is only the undifferentiated continuum, and—since there can be no differences between undifferentiated continua—this is identical with the undifferentiated continuum apprehended by our five senses. The self and the world are the same undifferentiated continuous reality. In the technical language of the East the Ótman and the Brahman are identical.

We can now see where we stand—it can be put most simply in the language of Plato. The sole reality is not to be found, as he imagined, in the determinate, intelligible, and timeless universals—such as Goodness itself, Beauty itself, and so on—to which he gave the name of ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’: it is to be found in what he called ‘matter’ or ‘the indeterminate’ or ‘not-being’. This is why the doctrine of nihilism can be summed up by saying that what is is what is not. The novel feature of this Eastern nihilism is that we are supposed to apprehend this not-being immediately by means of sense: we do not merely conceive it theoretically as the ideal limit of a process in which all differentiations are gradually thought away. The doctrine is indeed supported by many subtle forms of negative dialectic, but it is ultimately based on direct sensuous intuition.

The ascetic discipline known as ‘the Yoga’ is one way of attaining this intuition, in which the self is completely merged and lost in the ultimate reality which is nothing—or perhaps just not nothing. Another way—I quote Professor Northrop—is ‘the practice of the early Indian sages of sitting on their haunches in the heart of an Indian forest, so overwhelmed with the diversity and complexity of its tropical foliage that the mind loses all capacity to distinguish differentiations and is left to contemplate the unfathomable and ineffable intensity and the inexpressible immediacy of indeterminate experience itself.

This doctrine is beautifully consistent with the way of utter negation in religion, with pessimism about the whole temporal world of illusion, and with denial of a personal God and personal immortality. It also raises questions about what really happens to those who follow St. John of the Cross by emptying themselves alike of sense and desire and memory and understanding and will. We may find it hard to see why the dreamless sleep which is the sole reality should ever have been disturbed by our painful human dreams, or why we cannot escape from these dreams by death instead of by the difficult ways of self-denial and contemplation and dialectic. Professor Northrop himself thinks that in comparison with those who follow this negative way Westerners have tended to become emotionally and spiritually starved—a surprising judgement unless it is confined to the weakness of modern industrial civilization, aggravated perhaps in America where so many men have been cut off from their ancient roots. As a view of the world this nihilism is at least less terrible than a doctrine which reserves eternal bliss for the chosen few and eternal torment for the vast mass of mankind. It would be impertinent to dispose of it in a few words either as a system of thought or as a way of life. Here at least, with its many varieties and elaborations, we have one of the great philosophies—a far more thorough-going positivism (or negativism) than any known to us in the West. It is, I believe, right in maintaining that purely immediate apprehension—if such a thing were possible—would give us an object barely distinguishable from nothing. But this might be a reason for basing ethics and theology on something other than purely immediate apprehension.

From the book: