Robert McDermott, in his chapter “The Need for Physical and Spiritual Dialogue: Reflections on Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality” raises the issue of whether polemical discourse is ever appropriate for academic and especially spiritual dialogue . He ends up rather strongly condemning polemic, his major point being that it isn’t spiritual. But I believe that this, too, reflects an impoverished and narrow view of spirit — what it is, and where it is located.
McDermott asks if we could ever hear polemic from the great spiritual philosophers, such as Aurobindo or James or Plotinus. The answer, of course, is yes. In fact, the vast majority of spiritual philosophers have engaged at one time or another in intense polemical discourse — Plato, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Augustine, Origen, Plotinus, to name a very few. They do so, I believe, precisely because they understand the difference between what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to call “compassion” and “idiot compassion.” This is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn in politically correct America, where idiot compassion the abdication of discriminating wisdom and the loss of the moral fiber to voice it is too often equated with “spirituality.”
I think, on the contrary, that we admire these spiritual philosophers because idiot compassion was foreign to them, because they all had the moral courage to speak out in the most acerbic of terms when necessary, to make the hard calls and make them loud and clear. People too often imagine that choiceless awareness means making “no judgments” at all. But that itself is a judging activity. Rather, “choiceless awareness” means that both judging and no judging are allowed to arise, appropriate to circumstances. I think this is exactly why so many great spiritual philosophers engaged in such incredibly intense polemic, Plotinus being a quite typical example. Plotinus so aggressively attacked the astrologers that Dante felt it necessary to consign the entire lot of them to the eighth ring of hell, and Plotinus unrelentingly tore into the Gnostics as having “no right to even speak of the Divine.”
I used to think that if somebody engaged in that type of forceful polemic, he or she could not be very enlightened. I see now it is exactly the opposite. We tend to believe genuine spirituality should avoid all that, whereas in fact it quite often engages in such polemic passionately as a manifestation of its capacity to judge depth (i.e. its capacity for discriminating wisdom). Plotinus’s acerbic and occasionally sarcastic attacks on the astrologers and Gnostics is paradigmatic: they were a politically powerful and unpleasant lot, and it took courage to claim they had no right to even speak of the Divine. If McDermott is sincere about his pronouncements, then he would have been there to publicly condemn Plotinus, no doubt; but the point is that right or wrong Plotinus stood up to be counted, and it is a service to us that he did so in no uncertain terms. Moreover, saying Plotinus is not saying one thing in public and another in private; you know exactly where he stands.
The question is thus not whether these great spiritual philosophers engaged in polemic, for they did: the question is why. When such sages engage in intense polemic, I suppose we sometimes get nothing but their lingering neuroses; but we often get the full force of the overall judgment of their entire being, a shout from the heart in it sharp scream. It takes no effort at all to act out the former; it takes enormous courage to stand up and voice the latter, and this it what I have come to admire in all the sages and philosophers I have mentioned who have left us the full force of their summary judgments.
Contrary to McDermott’s sincere but misplaced pronouncements, such polemic comes not from this side of equanimity, but from the other side. One taste is the ground of intense judgments, not their abdication. These are not lunatics blathering prejudices: they evidence more like what the Tibetans would call the wrathful aspect of enlightened awareness.
McDermott tells us that he used to publicly and passionately voice his own judgments of qualitative distinctions and discriminating wisdom, but that he quit doing so in order to become a better administrator. I accept his choice. But I think it would be catastrophic for everybody in the transpersonal field to adopt that same stance and abdicate the public voicing of one’s discriminating wisdom.
There are many who see all too clearly the sad shape our field is in. They talk about it often in private. They tell me about it all the time. They are truly alarmed by the reactionary, antiprogressive, and regressive fog thickly creeping over the entire field. Yet most of them are not willing to stand up and be counted, precisely because the countercultural police await, poised and ready to sanctimoniously damn them. A little less administrative juggling, and a little more discriminating wisdom backed with occasional polemic, is exactly what the entire field could use, in my opinion. I, at any rate, can no longer sit by and smile numbly as depth takes a vacation.