The last major area for self-improvement effort is the spiritual realm. Recent Western philosophy neglects or even denies a spiritual realm and thus exertion to transcendence. It is not the purpose of this section to argue for the divine of supernatural, nor to act as a spiritual guide. But if we accept there is an ultimate reality, even if just the cosmos, it makes sense to investigate the possibility of human interface with it. Ernst Cassirer hints of the value of spirituality when he says, “He who lives in harmony with his own self, his demon, lives in harmony with the universe; for both the universal order and personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle.”4 These could just as easily be the words of Marcus Aurelius or a Hindu mystic.
The most powerful example of spirituality in Western philosophy is Neoplatonism, and specifically the Enneads of Plotinus. In Frank Magill’s summary, Plotinus teaches one to transcend the body and follow the path upwards from soul (self) to the Intellectual Principle to the One (the Good). In order to escape evil, multiplicity, and materiality for the unitary source “one must study and discipline himself for metaphysical insight.”5 How? “The philosopher is stirred by love and moved by beauty; both of these experiences teach him to discern the higher from the lower in nature’s sphere.”6 “To read Plotinus is to “stretch the mind’s natural habits and to learn to think and visualize in new ways. Contrast is the proper method: bodes are exclusively many; the Supreme is exclusively one.”7
Western religion of course also emphasizes spiritual self-improvement in the form of prayer, biblical study, or sacraments. However a deeper level is reflected in the rich body of mystical literature such as works by Pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and more recently Thomas Merton. Eckhardt’s writings are particularly instructive; key priorities are obedience to God, freedom of mind, self-denial, detachment, diligence, and love. “One must learn to cultivate an inward solitude wherever and with whomsoever one may be. One must learn to break through things and to grasp one’s God in them and to be able to picture Him powerfully to oneself in an essential manner.”8
Likewise, most Eastern philosophy and religion emphasizes spirituality. An excellent example of an Eastern spiritual practice is outlined in the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali. The 195 “threads” that make up this text fall into four sections: (1) exercises that lead one to pure contemplation, (2) eight systematic steps in the practice of spiritual development, (3) three final steps in the process to hyperconsicousness and perfect discipline, and (4) lessons on the nature of absolute freedom. This absolute freedom or ‘enlightenment’ then is the ultimate reality at the end of Patanjali’s teaching.
It may seem dubious, even wasteful to spend time in disciplines aimed at spiritual self-improvement, but none of us can afford to be so parochial as to ignore the benefits voiced by the great masters. Whether one seeks God, the One, enlightenment, or simply a full understanding of the cosmos, spirituality is a vital element.
1 Adler, Mortimer, The Time of Our Lives. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. ISBN 03-081836-2. Chapter 4, pages 29-37.
2Hutchins, Robert Maynard, The Great Conversation. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, IL, 1952. Page 53.
3See Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, Lecture 9 by Philip Cary.
4Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1972. ISBN 0-300-00034-0, page 7.
5Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper&Row Publishers, 1961. Page 250.
6Ibid. Page 251
8Eckhart, Meister, Selected Treatises and Sermons. Fount Paperbacks, Great Britain, 1994. Page 54.
9Miller, Barbara Stoler (translator), Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. Bantam Books, New York, 1998. ISBN 978-0-553-37428-5, pages 18-25