The Beautiful Souls
Living in the good place
The desire to please Mommy, as well as a resentful and simmering anger towards Daddy, characterises a great deal of today’s discourse. Sigmund Freud had a point when he talked about the Oedipal and the Electra complexes. And people have various ways of manifesting this desire to ‘sleep with the mother’ and ‘kill the father,’ metaphorically speaking.
One way of expressing this is the more unhinged kind of activism: the tantrums of the social justice warrior. The SJW’s exhibit a pretty straightforward kind of neurosis, which I won’t go into here. What interests me is the more is the sneaky neurosis that can be found in the spiritual dilettantism of the upper and middle class (it is mostly absent in the working class)—the passive aggression of what Hegel called The Beautiful Souls.
Much has been made of the SJW’s, especially in right wing media. And even if one doesn’t want to be associated with the bunch of angry YouTubers who mock them — you’ve got to admit that they have a point in their attack on SJW culture. However, the social justice vigilantes may not be as formidable a bunch as all that. The pathetic bunch of protesters who show up for, for instance, at a Jordan Peterson event, may not be a threat at all. They are usually just young punks without strong role models, in need of a good priest or psychologist. And their bad behavior is more or less good publicity for whomever or whatever they are protesting.
The real danger hides behind respectability. It is in the people who we can call, in Hegel’s nasty little sarcastic phrase: beautiful souls. It is the beautiful souls we need to watch out for. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it: ‘Every Angel is terrifying’, but Rilke was talking about a different kind of angel than we are speaking of here. Rilke’s angel is our brightest and most naked being. The beautiful soul, on the other hand, is obscure. He or she is most afraid to be naked and exposed. Beautiful souls hide behind image. And that is what explains their obscure power: an absence. Of substance.
The beautiful soul has all the right opinions. He or she is always on the side of the good, on the right side of history. Such a person can be quite sophisticated, a real intellectual—but one can sense, underneath all the enlightened views, the unacknowledged emotions: fear and envy. What is a beautiful soul afraid of? Of losing social position, of transgressing norms, of being laughed at. A beautiful soul is therefore always fashionable— because fashion masks real originality, real daring, even if it gives the illusion of individuality.
And that brings me to envy: the beautiful soul wears a Che Guevara t shirt (or used to, as that is out of fashion now) as a token, which represents a pseudo rebellion. That is because the beautiful soul is envious of a real revolutionary, because he or she always plays it safe, and can’t be a revolutionary, except in a virtual way. The beautiful soul is always a slave of the Collective Superego, of good opinion, of fantasy and fixation.
The Mask of Compassion
The beautiful soul supports all the beautiful causes therefore, from his or her trendy café divan of high class activism. Beautiful souls imagine themselves to be heroic and greatly empathetic to all the right causes; they are offended by all the ‘bad’ people (they can’t stop obsessing about Donald Trump, for example). And even their anger is virtual rather than fully embodied —they let off a bit of steam on social media. Beautiful souls may be charming, friendly, and polite, but if you offend their sense of propriety, they will have a hissy fit. They will flatter you to pieces, but always with hidden knives waiting to do you in.
The beautiful soul is full of boundaries, and cannot stop peevishly pointing them out. He or she is either morally outraged when those boundaries are transgressed or slinks away to avoid whatever cannot be defined or categorised. The beautiful soul makes an appearance of rationality, of good sense—makes clever, ironic jokes—but is most afraid of losing face. There is no real warmth in the beautiful soul, and even if there is a great display of compassion at times, that compassion is a mask (or what Chogyam Trungpa called ‘idiot compassion’).
The privileged life of the beautiful soul may appear to be enviable. But like the actors on the TV show called ‘The Good Place’, their heaven is actually a hell in drag. Such people are ripe with all kinds unacknowledged darkness; they glow with seemingly perfect ‘California sunshine’—but the glittery world of good opinion is actually an eternal television studio, a place without seasons. They live in a contrived world, and are animated by the scripts of good opinion to which they are unconscious of.
The beautiful soul can never be fully human—his or her heart is frozen in cliché and reactivity, or in an endless chess game of social positioning and good opinion. They appear to be in an enviable position because they can play the game of life adequately and get what they want. But their whole glittering world turns out to be, in the final analysis, ‘an empire of dirt’, a second hand reality, a theatre of intrigue rather than a direct, raw, and honest place.
The the celestial bubble in which the beautiful soul inhabits—the so-called good place—comes apart easily. Just think of celebrity divorces, political scandals, plastic surgery, and the endless rehab of movie stars. There is always something dirty beneath the clean sheets of the beautiful soul, some cancerous boil waiting to come to the surface.
Incidentally, one way you can notice a society of beautiful souls is the obsession with cuisine. In a beautiful society, we must always be putting something in our mouth, consuming delicacies of one sort of another. Food and fashion replace direct conviviality in the world of beautiful souls. And in that restaurant gallery the decor is always changing: there are always new diets, health food crazes, and solipsistic exercise regimes—to fill the hungry ghost mentality of the beautiful soul. The point is to be beautiful at all costs, to cultivate body image and ego to the hilt. The beautiful soul must eat up his own image, like narcissus gazing down at the pond eternally.
Another telltale sign: the beautiful soul claims to be ‘spiritual without being religious’. He or she has ‘his own personal Jesus’ so to speak; he or she has abandoned religion but not religiosity — and tends to replace the dogma of the church with secular dogmas of all kinds, from the new age to new atheism. The beautiful soul is either hyper-rational or hyper-spiritual, but has lost a certain earthly quality. He or she is a spirit divorced from a body, and lives mostly in the mind.
The remedy: adultification
To break out of ‘approval of mommy’ and ‘fear of daddy’ complexes demands stepping into the world of the adult. Being an adult means, traditionally, the cultivation of adult knowledge and the courage to face the wilder aspects of the soul. In todays hyper-civilised society we are deprived of both spiritual practice, contemplation, and rites of passage — no wonder there are so many lukewarm beautiful souls around today!
Raw Nature is both benevolent and harsh — it will crush the ego of beautiful souls. That is one reason why wild, non-domesticated spaces need to be sought out. An urban person, deprived of his wilder being, will become a hyper-civilised beautiful soul. Facing our real nature, as opposed to our romantic version of it, requires that we cultivate a certain toughness and relationship with the natural world — and this is what is needed to cut through the seductions of modern society
Soft men and angry women tend to be beautiful souls. Men who are too compliant, women who are too angry, rule today’s hyper-civilised urban world. The men are anima possessed—in Carl Jung’s terms —which means they are unconsciously trying to please the hidden female, the shadow of mommy. The women, on the other hand, are full of animus, furious at men for being so compliant.
On the surface women are angry at the patriarchy (read: daddy) but deep down they are angry about the lack of men who are truly present. Men with real character and presence cultivate a certain poetic toughness —they tend to attract women. And women will always ally with the man who is both a poet and a warrior, and secretly despise the one who is a sophist or a beautiful soul.
The problem with beautiful souls is—if I can be rather harsh—is that they are neither beautiful, nor do they have a soul. They are virtual —all glitter and appearance—therefore, they are to be pitied. The beautiful souls have a parasitic relationship to nature and knowledge—they are sleep-walking in ‘the good place’.
A deeper kind of presence and beauty requires real cultivation and courage, and stepping out of the comfort zone of good opinion. It requires soft hearted toughness, not brittle opinionating—which is the favourite game of the endlessly discursive beautiful soul. The real soul, on the other hand, is both merciful and direct, uncompromising and has a larger panoramic view.
Acknowledgements: I learned the term ‘Beautiful Souls’ from Alexander Bard who also came up with the term ‘adultification’. The expression ‘Mask of Compassion’ was borrowed from Jordan Peterson. And finally, Jordan Hall wrote about the results of offending ‘good opinion’ in his essay Understanding the Blue Church and had some influence on this text.
Understanding the Blue Church
In my Situational Assessment: 2017, I quoted a post from Reddit:
Support or contact Andrew Sweeny: