From birth we are surrounded by the inherited and imposed belief systems of our environment. Such systems exert a silent force on our thinking; they channel our behaviors within defined limits, and demarcate the boundaries of conventional thought. They can become so pervasive that they escape even our own notice. We should not necessarily see this as an evil, for custom and tradition provide, on balance, a certain predictability and stability that makes for civilized leisure and artistic creation; and society must have some immovable foundation upon which to direct its spires skyward.
And yet this same predictability and permanence can easily stifle the creative individual. He who wishes to explore, create, and seek the answers to important questions will find that he needs to activate his mind in unconventional ways. For him the inherited wisdom is an intellectual prison; he must burst through the barriers imposed by orthodoxy, and hack his way through the jungles of the Unknown. He craves a mission, a purpose, and some kind of divine spark to energize his quest. He must throw off the shackles of the old ways of thinking, and strike out in new directions. He must dare to go down unmapped roads, and navigate the boiling seas of Uncertainty. He must be prepared to endure the mockery and derision of those who would belittle his efforts. But how does such a creative person come to this realization? What strikes the match of the divine fire? Does the conversion experience happen at once, in a flash, or is it an incremental process that takes place over a long period of time?
It seems to me that there is an interaction between two things: (1) a constant process of seeking and searching, that can take place over a long period; and (2) a more sudden “spark” that stirs the soul of the creative thinker, and lights his inner fire. Both of these things go hand-in-hand, and we do not see one without the other. Consider the example of that distinguished writer and reformer, Frederick Douglass, who faced the nearly insurmountable challenges of overcoming both mental and physical bondage. Most men can barely handle the servitude of the mind; but Douglass had also to contend with being physically imprisoned in an unjust system over which he had no control. In his 1855 memoir My Bondage and My Freedom, he credits his mother with instilling in him an early thirst for knowledge:
I can, therefore, fondly and proudly ascribe to her an earnest love of knowledge…I am quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess, and for which I have got–despite of prejudices–only too much credit…to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother…
But learning and knowledge were forbidden to him. He had to acquire literacy on his own, by copying letters and words from dictionaries, and by talking to whomever he could find. But his discovery that he was trapped fed his iron determination to win his freedom at any cost.
When I was about thirteen years old, and had succeeded in learning to read, every increase of knowledge…added something to the almost intolerable burden of the thought, “I am a slave for life.” To my bondage I saw no end. It was a terrible reality, and I shall never be able to tell how sadly that thought chafed my young spirit. Fortunately, or unfortunately, about this time in my life, I had made enough money to buy what was then a very popular school book, viz: the “Columbian Orator”…This volume was, indeed, a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it.
His unrelenting efforts led him to see the possibilities that the world offered him; he began to see that, if he could only escape the confinements of his present condition, he would have a chance to develop the qualities with which Nature and Reason had endowed him. The reader of his memoirs gets the impression that Douglass would never have attempted physical escape had he not first been able to liberate his mind from the pernicious beliefs that surrounded him on every side. This fact made him acutely aware of how systems of oppression operate and are sustained. The following passage should be read and reflected on by anyone trying to understand the servitude of the mind, and the abject breaking of the spirit:
To make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery. The man that takes his earnings, must be able to convince him that he has a perfect right to do so. It must not depend upon mere force; the slave must know no Higher Law than his master’s will. The whole relationship must not only demonstrate, to his mind, its necessity, but its absolute rightfulness. If there be one crevice through which a single drop can fall, it will certainly rust off the slave’s chain.
The converse truth of the last sentence above is that if one drop of shining truth can fall up on a man’s mental chains, he can begin the process of the liberation of his consciousness.
Another example of the unblocking of the mind is afforded by one of the most influential names in Islamic theology, Al-Ghazali. His full name was Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الغزالي), and he lived from about 1058 to 1111. One of his most famous works is a confessional treatise entitled The Deliverance from Error (المنقذ من الضلال); it is an intense self-examination of how the author was able to free his mind from what he believed was “error” and renew his faith in his life’s purpose. What strikes the reader of Al-Ghazali’s testament is its fervent sincerity; not since St. Augustine has an author so candidly revealed his faith. His profession was originally that of a teacher and scholar; but at some point, he suffered some kind of personal crisis that made him physically ill. He was unable to concentrate on his work, and lost faith in his personal direction. Finally, after an extended period of self-examination, he recovered himself, and undertook a new direction with a passionate sense of purpose:
I remained for some little time speechless. Then the difficulty appeared to resemble the problem of sleep. I told myself that when one is asleep one believes all sorts of things and finds oneself in all sorts of situations; one believes in them absolutely, without the slightest doubt. When one wakes up, one realizes the inconsistency and inanity of the phantasms of the imagination. In the same way, one might ask oneself about the reality of beliefs one has acquired through one’s senses or by reason. Could one not imagine oneself in a state which compares to being awake, just as wakefulness compares to being asleep?…
My disease grew worse and lasted almost two months, during which I fell prey to skepticism, though neither in theory nor in outward expression. At last, God the Almighty cured me of that disease and I recovered my health and mental equilibrium. The self-evident principles of reason again seemed acceptable; I trusted them and in them felt safe and certain…To sum up, know that in the quest for truth one must strive for perfection, even to the point of seeking the unseekable. Primary truths have no need of being sought because they are present in the mind. What is present will disappear if you seek it, but one who seeks the unseekable will not be suspected of negligence in seeking what can be sought. [Trans. by M. Abulaylah]
To seek the unseekable: this ethic, perhaps, best encapsulates the process of mental liberation. There must be an ongoing, constant thirst for knowledge, a constant questioning of inherited beliefs, combined at some point with a spark that triggers a personal revelation. With some, the revelation of seeing the world in a different way arrives more suddenly. Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a self-taught Dutch businessman and amateur scientist who lived from 1632 to 1723. Living to the age of ninety-one, he spent forty of those years absorbed in scientific research. He came from a family of brewers in Delft; perhaps his observations of beer fermentation stimulated his curiosity about micro-organisms. Science was a hobby that became an all-consuming passion for him at some point in his adulthood; most of his 247 microscopes he made with his own hands. Leeuwenhoek’s moment of revelation came in 1675 when, purely out of curiosity, he happened to examine a few drops of rain water that had collected in a pot a few days earlier. He was shocked to find the water swarming with micro-organisms, which he called “animalcules.” Further investigation of other substances (e.g., saliva, semen, etc.) revealed an entirely unknown arena of life.
A similar episode of mental liberation came with physicist Max Planck’s desperate attempt to find a mathematical model that would match his laboratory observations. The only way he could make the data “fit” the observations was to propose a radically new conception: the idea that light could only be emitted in distinct packets, or increments, which he called quanta. Herein lies the foundational observation and principle of quantum physics. It is not only scientists who experience such moments of inspiration, of course. I would be remiss not to mention here the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s discovery of geometry. We are told that he once found a copy of Euclid’s Elements lying open on a desk; what he saw fascinated him, and led him to work his way backwards in the book to the initial propositions. He was deeply impressed with geometry’s logical structure and infallible reasoning, and longed to bring this way of thinking to philosophy. And should we not here mention Rene Descartes’s observations of flies crawling around on his ceiling as he lay in bed sick as a young man, and how these observations caused him to speculate on mathematical models that might describe their movements?
But moments of inspiration are mirrored by moments of closure. There are some creative minds that suddenly shut down, perhaps under the influence of trauma or disillusionment. The Dutch scientist Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680) had an early period of productivity, then apparently burned himself out after completing a treatise on bees in 1673. He thereafter found comfort and renewed purpose in religious work. We may conclude from all these examples that the liberation of the mind takes place along two dimensions: first, there is a continuous, probing search for truth that can last for years; second; there is some kind of triggering spark that sets off a moment of revelation. Mental liberation is not a permanent end-state; it must be renewed and refurbished continually, as the mind easily slips into comfortable grooves and patterns, rejecting contradictory stimuli.
Man begins his quest for freedom from the cradle, and it ceases only with the grave.
Read more in Thirty-Seven: