The Man, The Lion, and The Monster

A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis (Episodes 4–6)

In his series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, John Vervaeke tells us that prophecy is not what we think it is: that it has nothing to do with gazing into the future through a crystal ball or speaking in tongues. Prophesy, in the Greek and Hebrew sense, is actually ‘the moral redemption of history’. A prophet comes to decipher the meaning crisis and gives us injunctions on how to survive and ultimately transcend it.

Originally prophesy meant to ‘interpret the will of the gods’. So how will we do this in the modern age when there are no more Gods? Actually, there are still gods: it’s just that modern gods reflect modern sensibilities. Modern gods are the spirits of power that possess movie stars, scientists, artists, politicians—and even professors on YouTube. Like the Greek gods of old, such deities can be either divine or malevolent.

In some sense, John Vervaeke, in his series, is doing prophecy. Note: that doesn’t mean that he knows the future, but rather that he is trying to ‘bring us back on course’, which is the true function of prophecy. The fact that he is taking a risk and talking outside of an academic context, and on the internet, also indicates a certain prophetic urgency. Today the words of the prophets may be written on the the YouTube walls, to deform the famous line of Paul Simon.

A prophet intervenes to redeem the future. Like the scientist warning us of the dangers of climate catastrophe, he or she interprets complex information that is too esoteric and obscure for the average person. Of course, the prophetic message could have varying degrees of truth or falsity. Obviously, there are lots of false prophets and false prophecies around, so we have to be very careful who we listen to.

Part of prophecy—or redeeming the future—may also be the task of restoring perennial ideas which have been forgotten or banalized, including the notion of prophecy. This means that the prophet is in some sense also a philosopher. Martin Heidegger wrote a great deal about how thinking is a process of revealing what is hidden in the world, rather than sophistry, rhetoric, or playing language games. The philosopher is constantly redefining or discovering new aspects of foundational concepts in order to prevent them from becoming dead ideas or cheap cliches.

One of the great values of of Vervaeke’s series is in his purging of principles like prophesy and the sacred, both of their supernatural dross and contemporary banality. For example, Vervake’s definition of the sacred is an ‘inexhaustible font of inspiration’. The sacred here is not found in ideological cliches or religious platitudes, but in revelations of new meaning. The prophet philosopher comes in pivotal moments to both renew the age and redefine sacred values. Therefore Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are sacred prophets for us.

In the axial age, we see a new kind of prophet philosopher emerge: one who is concerned with the idea of ‘Know Thyself’, which were the words inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. On the other hand, Socrates, famous for relentlessly questioning people about their unconscious assumptions and true motivations, was the wisest man in Athens because he knew that he didn’t know. The paradox here is: we can’t have any knowledge until we know that we don’t know very much about reality.

Socrates’s unknowing is not a state of ignorance, but of being sensually open to reality rather than a puppet to the collective norms. The person who knows that he doesn’t know is the person who really ‘thinks’. And if you do enough deconstructive thinking, you fall into a state Aporia — the Greek word that means something like having the bottom fall out. No wonder Socrates offended the powers that be. His deconstruction of the individual and society was radical and uncompromising enough to put the whole society into a state of aporia.

Socrates knew how to make enemies. He challenged both the natural philosophers, who described reality rationally but didn’t tell us how to live, and the sophists, who don’t care about truth but only winning the argument. The natural philosophers were the positivists and scientific materialists of today. The early philosopher Thales, who said things like: ‘everything is moist’ was a natural philosopher. This was a rational argument for the day perhaps, but it didn’t tell us how to live, which was Socrates’ criticism.

Socrates reserved his biggest ire for the sophists, however, who practiced the art of rhetoric, but were less interested in truth than effect. They were the contemporary bullshit artists of the day—for them appearance and technique mattered more than the truth. Socrates’s hatred for sophists inflated rhetoric, his dismissal of the natural philosophers, and his relentless insistence that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, led to his martyrdom. Socrates almost theatrical indifference to ‘good opinion’ and uncompromising relentless ‘love of wisdom’ (which is the literal meaning of philosophy)—meant he was destined to choose between drinking the poison hemlock or swallowing the bullshit and show trial that his society had become.

As an aside: the other pivotal figure that Vervaeke discusses is Pythagoras, a quasi mythical person who retained much of the shamanistic qualities of an earlier, more magical/mythic era, but also brought mathematics and mysticism together. Pythagoras was an important figure for Socrates’ most famous student Plato, because of his ideas of cosmic and mathematical perfection. In a meaning crisis, when chaos looms, the attraction to a mathematically ordered cosmos becomes attractive.

Plato was deeply shocked by Socrates’ death and became obsessed with the question: how could his beloved Athenians have murdered their greatest citizen? And why is the human so ignorant, mechanical, and capable of such inadvertent cruelty—truly a ‘house divided against itself’.

The classic problem with human beings is that our short term desires contradict our moral imperatives: there is a division within us that makes us prone to addiction, impulsive violence, ideology, and advertising bullshit—and we do it all with a smile. That is: our divided brains make it hard to separate the signal from the noise. But this is the task of real philosophy. Socrates tells us that we need to love truth so much that we are willing to die for it. This attitude will give us both a compelling existence and a true one, a salient and a meaningful life, in Vervaeke’s language.

Plato went further than Socrates in analyzing the different layers of human motivation. He described consciousness as divided into three major centers, represented symbolically by the man, the lion, and the monster—located respectively in the head, the chest, and the guts. The ‘man is in charge of ‘reason’, the lion oriented towards society, and the stomach controls the appetite and drives.

The early 20th Century mystic George Gurdjieff made a similar analysis when he said that the human being has three brains: the rational residing in the head, the emotional in the heart, and movement in the belly. Gurdjieff devised diverse methods for working with all three centers for holistic development of the human being, as so many esoteric systems have. Vervaeke doesn’t mention Gurdjieff in the series, but also says that Freud’s ‘superego/ego/and Id’ is roughly analogous.

In any case, the harmonious functioning of these three centers and the holistic development of the individual was Plato’s concern. His formula was: ‘teach the man, train the lion, tame the monster’. This is what Vervaeke calls an ‘optimization strategy’. That is: the more these parts are working together, the more self-knowledge and inner reconciliation is manifested.

One point that Vervaeke doesn’t make, however, which I think is important, is that the ‘higher realms’ could become equally monstrous as the lower ones. The disembodied intellectual, for instance, could become the mind-monster; the drama queen a monster of the heart; the sex or food addict a body monster. That is to say: there are equal potential pathologies in all ‘three brains’. Of course, in the course of western history the mind and body have been seen dualistically, and the body has too often been seen as ‘the monster’.

By dividing the man from the monster, Plato situates truth in the heady realms of ideals. He therefore moves the axial age deeper into this dualistic ‘two world mythology’, just as the Hebrews had done, but in a more individualistic fashion. Instead of the tribal journey expressed in the Exodus, Plato’s emphases is on the enlightenment of the individual. Today we can see these two dynamics still at play and interpenetrate each other—the tribal exodus motive and liberation of the individual—our Judeo-Christian heritage and our Greek philosophical one.

Plato’s two world mythology and his parable of the cave endures in films like the Matrix, in which there are two worlds: the world of illusion and the world of the real. The idea is that the heroic human being can ascend up out of the cave of shadowy ignorance and break through the code of the Matrix to enter the realm of ‘the real world’ and the ‘true man’. Plato’s enlightenment myth will later be criticized by the likes of Nietzsche for its stark dualism and its disembodied idealism. But it would seem that Vervaeke is firmly on the side of Plato and the neoplatonics here.

Aristotle, Plato’s top student, felt that there was something missing in his master’s vision: ‘While I love Plato, I love the truth more’, he famously said. Vervaeke points out that if Plato had a very mathematical vision of ideal forms, Aristotle had a more biological view. According to Aristotle, Plato didn’t account for dynamism and how things change: his vision was too static and idealistic, in other words.

Aristotle was interested in how things ‘lived up to their potential’, so to speak; the processes involved, in, for example, how a piece of wood becomes a chair, or a fetus becomes a fully developed human being. Vervaeke points out that, Aristotle even invented the word ‘potential’ and ‘actual’—words which we still hear in new age jargon when people tell us to ‘actualize our potential’.

To explain Aristotle’s worldview and how it differed from Plato, Vervaeke jumps ahead in history to Newton and Kant. According to Kant, Newtonian mechanics don’t explain reality sufficiently, and—to make a very complex story short—living beings are ‘self-organizing’ dynamic systems whose emergence was more complex and mysterious than linear causes and effects. Vervaeke seems to suggest that Aristotle’s idea of ‘the unmoved mover’ more accurately reflects the various paradoxes in modern system theories and physics.

Aristotle was also interesting in the development of character. According to him we cultivate our character through a system of powers and constraints, which Aristotle called ‘The Golden Mean’. For instance, developing real courage doesn’t mean talking foolhardy risks, but rather finding the perfect balance between risk and cowardice, or taking intelligent risks and limiting our fear.

The ‘human problem’ as mentioned above is that we so often know what the right thing to do is, but we don’t do it. The reason is that we don’t have the discipline or haven’t developed the proper positive feedback loops and constraints. We need to develop our character consciously to avoid what the greeks called akrasia, which means ‘the foolishness that comes with the lack of character’.

The human being is a self-organizing creature, very complex, involved in autopoiesis, which means a system that can maintain and reproduce itself, in Francisco Varela’s formulation. To break negative habits and addictions is not an easy task and requires the lifelong cultivation of the ‘virtual engines’ of character. Virtual here means we practice imaginative simulations of real situations. We practice martial arts, for instance, in the rare event that we might actually need to fight. Training, study, meditation, discipline of all kinds makes us more able to deal with complex situations, and this requires the cultivation of character and virtue.

Much of our activity is mechanical and instinctive, but what makes us different than other creatures is the ability to change the meta-structure, or our own consciousness and character. It may seem quaint today to talk about virtue, character, and living up to our potential, because popular psychology has banalized all those things. But delving into the prophetic ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle will help us develop virtuous habits, a deep character, and align us with the sacred.

Note: This is not a summary of Vervakeke’s ideas particularly, but a discursive exploration. In other words, I have scattered my own insights and examples among his. I may not be always representing his ideas fully or accurately, but I am doing my best to add something to the conversation, rather that just repeat what he has already said. My apologies in advance to the good professor if I get something wrong here. I’m open to correction.


John Vervaek’s Awakening From The Meaning Crisis playlist

Others essay in this series:

The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Noble Provocations
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Relevance Realization
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion

Podcasts and other writing:
Sweeny vs Bard
Sweeny Verses
Rebel Wisdom Articles by Andrew Sweeny

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Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.

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