The following is the first of my four-part essay series (clearly, brevity isn’t my strong suit) attacking the pervasive New Age belief of “inner peace” as a metaphysical way of life.
When criticising inner peace, I’m not condemning coping techniques that are merely tools we use to “play the game” (as Euwyn Goh says) in modern society, e.g. meditation, mindfulness practices, etc. Instead, the ideological substructure that makes the desire for everlasting inner peace the ultimate purpose of one’s life, where the psycho-technological tools that are only a part replace the whole of one’s being. And attaining peace within one’s inner self and having a pseudo-nirvanic state of existence becomes all that matters. I inveigh against this subtle elevation of inner peace beyond a pragmatic category to an ontological one—that is, defining the whole breadth of one’s reality qua “inner peace”.
Our Dying Culture
During the fall of Rome, did the Romans know their culture was dying? Probably not, as history can only be understood retrospectively, and even then, Hegel realised that “What experience and history teach is this—that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”(Lectures on the Philosophy of History, V1, 1832) To paraphrase hipster-historian Curtis Yarvin: one who studies the fall of Rome finds Virgil-reading bureaucrats of the elitist-intellectual class writing each other letters with “flowery garbage” full of aristocratic backscratching. And only in the background details of these letters you’d read passing comments such as “I won’t be able to visit this year because the roads are unsafe.” But they’d never question why the roads have become unsafe in the first place! They’d never inquire why their society is deteriorating! In their self-righteousness, they ignore all the canaries in the coal mine of Rome falling.
We see a similar phenomenon in the West. But signs of Western society falling are not the usual ones seen on corporate media, e.g., socioeconomic inequality, tensions among global superpowers, climate change, the rise in “deaths of despair.”, etc. While these problems ought to be dealt with immediately, they are generally used by the ruling class as propaganda to get people to vote for a party or candidate X within the modern ideological Overton window. Despite the perilousness of our times, hegemonic neoliberals don’t take any of the problems seriously. Lip service is paid to the dangers, and they even make it a point to act on them ostensibly. But all action is confined within the optimism of neoliberal ideology—it’s a strange form of pseudo-activity, that is, acting in trivial, ultimately useless ways to delay real, effective action ad infinitum. Most of us think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, ignoring any contrary signs. But as Slavoj Žižek states,
“The true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlight of another train approaching us from the opposite direction.” (The Courage of Hopelessness, NSK State Pavilion, May 2017)
And yet, it’s only when we see the headlights of that oncoming train and know all hope is lost; when we fully assume our mess and accept there are no easy solutions to the problems of our time; when traditions are dead, and the Nietzschean God himself has abandoned us; where “God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” (The Courage to Be, P. 190) do we find courage in hopelessness and discover the Tillichian “God above God.” Such is why I hate inner peace.
Being courageous in the face of hopelessness from a place of peace is an existential impossibility. All acts of personal and social revolution begin when we’re dissatisfied and vexed by the current state of things; there’s nothing peaceful about this; in fact, it’s mostly anger, and rightly so. Momentous historical movements such as abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, anti-apartheid, worker’s rights, etc., took place through metaphysical rebellion “by which man protests against his condition and against the whole of creation. It is metaphysical because it contests the ends of man and of creation. The slave protests against the condition in which he finds himself within his state of slavery; the metaphysical rebel protests against the condition in which he finds himself as a man. The rebel slave affirms that there is something in him that will not tolerate the manner in which his master treats him; the metaphysical rebel declares that he is frustrated by the universe. For both of them, it is not only a question of pure and simple negation. In both cases, in fact, we find a value judgment in the name of which the rebel refuses to approve the condition in which he finds himself.” (Albert Camus, The Rebel, P. 11)
Perhaps such is why Hegel rejects Kant’s proposal of perpetual peace and believes war is a type of “purification” process for the state and allows citizens to take part in it “and alleviates the atomization of civil society.”: a notion aphoristically condensed as “War is progress, peace is stagnation.” I’m not a militarist; therefore, my opposition to inner peace doesn’t mean I’m advocating for war. However, neither am I a pacifist because antagonism has a place in civil society; as Žižek noted, eternal peace is only desired by those in power. For instance, Putin would want peace after his invasion, which would really mean Ukraine’s complete annexation. Or the Iranian regime would want peace amidst the ongoing protests, but that entails the continuous oppression of women. So do we tell the Ukrainians and the Iranian protesters to work towards achieving inner peace amidst their tribulations? Need I point out the absurdity of such appeals? It’s such a kind of peace I reject because, as Žižek highlights, sometimes doing nothing is often the most violent course of action we take. Therefore, to be at serene peace with oneself unconditionally is an unethical category, existentially and most certainly politically—and as Aristotle understood, human beings are inescapably political animals. Plainly stated: there are problems in the world that needs rectifying, so be bothered and agitated, perhaps even angry, as that’s the starting point for any emancipatory act.
Firstly though, since we’re all brainwashed utilitarians, we must violently shake ourselves out of the belief that social relations are purely pragmatic. They are not. Therefore, our dying culture cannot be revivified by game theoretic means using metrics such as productivity or self-reported happiness statistics. Ergo, to understand our predicament, there aren’t any comfortable solutions we could derive from systematic, impersonal so-called rational philosophies, e.g., effective altruism. These weak ideas lead to nonsensical Dickensian telescopic philanthropy and pathetically maintain the status quo. It’s also anti-human; as Dostoevsky’s, Father Zosima recalls a story of a young man he knew:
“‘He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.’ [...] But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.” (The Brothers Karamazov, P. 79)
So, a general rule of thumb is that the more universalistic your thinking becomes, the more shitty you become as a person. But saying to “love thy neighbour” is not a conservative Petersonian “clean-up-your-room before you criticise the world” argument! In fact, it’s only in a dying culture people neurotically obsess over self-help and ignore social action because it’s seen as useless. We can only revivify and recreate our dead gods communally; paradoxically, self-help shouldn’t be for the self but rather be in the service of unleashing one’s creative chaos and vibrancy onto the world, not for happiness, inner peace, etc., but for love—let greatness, excellence and the sublime serve love.
But before the remedy, the symptom: the clearest sign that the West is dying is that our culture doesn’t promote human vitality. Existentially speaking, human vitality is—for starters—the ability to fuck like a beast. I only partially joke here; apart from the obvious material-biological benefit of reproduction, being able to make love like a demigod with cosmoerotic orgasms that wake up the neighbours on the next block is a sign that we live in a vibrant culture. Unfortunately, despite so-called sexual liberation, data shows people are having less sex, and Gen Z is the loneliest generation. All of this indicates a lack of health, emotions, drive and fantasy permeating our everyday experience; being sexless is existential apathy. As the saying attributed apocryphally to Freud goes, “Everything is about sex, except sex: sex is about power.” One doesn’t have to delve into the abstruse world of psychoanalysis to understand the potency of sex in the human condition. Being infatuated with someone—at times destructively—is something we all experience. We all desire to be in love, share intimacy and, of course, explore our sexuality with another person that we deeply trust. But a good Lacanian would say our desires itself are informed by our culture (or “the Other”); we desire the desire of others, finding our subjectivity within the political and socio-economic context of our times—which is why consumerist capitalism is an infinite machine as it tells us how to desire. Therefore, despite desiring love, when one intuits an emasculated, languishing culture, it’s reflected in one’s actions, even in something as personal as sex. So much like an individual, culture itself has a libido. Perhaps it’s the Schopenhauerian noumenal Will, a will to Live! (Wille zum Leben); it’s what gives our self-affirming creative spirits their vigour, non-teleologically informing us to partake in the world and dance with God, or as Freinacht states, “it’s about centring our attention on our lust-driven relatedness to reality, our love affair with the cosmos.” And on the topic of lambasting inner peace: we all know that great sex is never peaceful.
Tragically, modern Westerners are fat, lazy and doltish. And even those who get into health and wellness become narcissistic sycophants for some fad diet or self-help cult. Certainly, due to advancements in medical science (though that, too, is slowing down), life is better on some accounts compared to the past. But our quality of life cannot be reduced to a statistic such as life expectancy. It resembles what Curtis Yarvin states about vitalism:
“Unlike pleasure, which can be “measured” statistically (with the model that consumer dollars spent is a rough proxy for pleasure, or so-called “utility”), human vitality is immeasurable in principle. Some aspects of vitality can be measured—physique is an important part of vitality, and there are many excellent metrics of physique—but the problem of vitality as a whole will never submit to any kind of political statistics. [...] the condition of a nation is the condition of the humans in it, and that condition (the “common good,” if you like) can never be measured in dry numbers—only assessed by human wisdom.”
The lack of vitality in our culture is typified by NPC (non-player character) liberals and the rise of Postmodern “Western Buddhism” (PWB). NPC-liberals are the characteristic bourgeois person you’d meet in a cosmopolitan city like Melbourne, for instance. They’ve fully bought into the “false freedom” of our times, working endlessly and engaging in consumerism to fuel the capitalist machine, thinking that property investments or owning some stupid car will bring them happiness—they probably also enjoy listening to Jordan Peterson. NPC-liberals aren’t the quasi-psychopathic capitalists of the Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987) or Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) ilk but certainly fantasise about them. But above all, they’re satisfied with the status quo and have an ideological belief that things will work out. Such a person is what Herbert Marcuse calls the One-Dimensional Man; a person who’s under the modern hegemonic social control of our ostensibly democratic system, which in reality is totalitarian due to its commodification of everything, including people. An NPC-liberal is one dimensional because their perceptions of a “good life” or “affluence” are dictated by the powerful, i.e. politicians, big tech, corporate media, etc.; in fact, their reality itself is formulated by capitalist ideology. In other words, NPC-liberals are the perfect slaves.
But another group not foreseen by Marcuse in the 1960s is the Postmodern Western Buddhist, identified and elucidated best by Slavoj Žižek:
“[...] “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit [serenity and releasement], it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement. [...] Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavour to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination. One should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being. [...] The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. [...] It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.”
Paradoxically, the PWB, while having completely opposing views to the NPC-liberal, still has the same material effect socially. They detest consumerism and perhaps even superciliously scorn the NPC-liberal’s ostentatious materialism. A PWB virtually owns nothing and probably fantasises about digital-nomadic social media influencers instead of the Gordon Gekko-Jordan Belfort type. Unlike the NPC-liberal, the PWB is fully aware that things will not work out if we don’t have fundamental systemic and cultural changes; they are dissatisfied and despondent about the status quo. And yet, they fully partake in the system from a place of “healthy detachment” and cosmic resignation; in fact, as Žižek highlights, it’s this withdrawal into the inner Self that allows the PWB to find a semblance of peace and sanity within the vicissitudes of global capitalism. Nevertheless, PWBs are still slaves; their apathetic step back from the world to focus on the so-called inner Self means they aren’t politically engaged, allowing pernicious consumerism with its concomitant catastrophes to exacerbate and, ultimately, much like the NPC-liberal, leads to a whole group of people that don’t challenge the ruling class and ideological structures of power.
Similar to religious fanatics, identitarian extremists, incels, etc. NPC-liberals and PWBs are a by-product of capitalist nihilism and the alienation imbued by modernity where, as Dostoevsky wrote, human beings have become nothing but piano keys; we’re cogs in machines that merely organise capital, following the commandments of free-market forces and letting bureaucrats walk all over us in Kafkaesque systems. So soulless NPC-liberalism and pusillanimous Postmodern Western Buddhism are a quasi-reactionary attempt at being an antidote to modernities predicaments. Unfortunately, it’s a failed attempt.
But a critique of modernity isn’t a call back to conservatism! The world of before, including its God, is dead. We’re starting from a quasi-Sartrean nothingness, though, paradoxically, we’re condemned to be radically free while also needing emancipation from modernity. Atheism isn’t enough; we must embrace our absurdism and not succumb to nihilism when gazing into the abyss of meaningless; then, we rediscover God, where, as Martin Buber realised, perhaps a non-theistic one where God needs us as much as we need him:
“For to step into pure relation is not to disregard everything but to see everything in the Thou, not to renounce the world but to establish it on it a true basis. To look away from the world, or to stare at it, does not help a man to reach God; but he who the world in Him stands in His presence.” (I and Thou, P. 79)
As Peter Rollins highlights, Christians are idolatrous as we reduce God to an idol who gives us certainty and satisfaction. And atheists aren’t truly atheistic, as they still believe in the Lacanian Big Other: “qua symbolic order, namely, the overarching ‘objective spirit’ of trans-individual socio-linguistic structures configuring the fields of inter-subjective interactions.” Or put more simply: it’s false structures of authoritative power and knowledge that give our life meaning, e.g. science, the state, liberal democracy, the “natural order” of capitalism etc. But the point is that both the “good news” of Christianity and the atheistic Big Other does not exist; it’s self-imposed! We cannot outsource our existence to a fantasmatic-fictional anonymous “Other”; it cannot do the believing for you. In fact, the emancipatory, actual good news of Christianity is that God died on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)—and his resurrection leaves us with the holy spirit: the egalitarian community of love within us, not “up there” in heaven. As Hegel and Žižek understood, the radical subversion of Christianity is that God stops becoming a transcendent one and sublates himself by coming down to us dirty humans; he isn’t the superlative, most perfect being beyond us, but as Paul Tillich realised, Christianity tells us, “The being of God is being-itself. The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. [...] Whenever infinite or unconditional power and meaning are attributed to the highest being, it has ceased to be a being and has become being-itself. Many confusions in the doctrine of God and many apologetic weaknesses could be avoided if God were understood first of all as being-itself or as the ground of being. [...] Therefore, instead of saying that God is first of all being-itself, it is possible to say that he is the power of being in everything and above everything, the infinite power of being.” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, P. 234) Furthermore, Christianity is not a religion of peace but one of love. And anyone who’s been in love would know these things are fundamentally different; most times, like Christ, we sacrifice peace for love. Such is why Christians cannot find salvation in Christ but only in an idolatrous blemishment of him—in Tillichian fashion, true salvation ought to be seen as partaking in the “New Being” God creates ad infinitum, not in finding hope, stability, peace, happiness, etc.
God is seemingly confused and lost as we are, or in Žižek’s Hegelian terms: “It was not that Christ came down to Earth to deliver people from sin, from the legacy of Adam’s Fall; on the contrary, Adam had to fall in order to enable Christ to come to earth and disperse salvation.” (The Plague of Fantasies, P. 221). So we should rid ourselves of naive and cowardly hope for peace and stability. Reality is fundamentally chaotic, and its core is cracked; with the dawn of existence, something went terribly wrong, and we are responsible for it. Ergo we never reach the Garden of Eden, and life is weathering one storm after another. But most times, life requires you to create these storms. Life calls out to you to become a God—perhaps this is what Theosis (Ancient Greek: θέωσις) means in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The brokenness of reality also gives us freedom, a freedom to rectify the errors of God. Similar to how the women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad is called to fill the gap left in society by injustice, misogyny, theocracy, etc., so are we—as she survives the assassination attempts by the Iranian regime due to her leading role in the ongoing protests, she has no inner peace, and she doesn’t desire it either. So why should you and I? Why leave fixing the problems, fighting autocrats, challenging unjust systems and filling the gap to a handful of people like Alinejad? Why don’t we take responsibility for the sins of our forebears? Why do we outsource our virtues and moral duties to the abstract “Other”, be it God or the secular state? Because we’re cowards! And we masquerade our cowardice in feigned ideas like “inner peace”, which is why I hate it, as it’s the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing in our times!
UPDATE: I’ve decided to discontinue this series. You can find my reasoning here.
If you found this first part of my essay series insightful and thought-provoking, please consider subscribing to the newsletter for the rest.
Very pleasant shock to see my name in the introduction. Great essay as always brother!
Excited for the future parts, and keen to discuss this in person.