A friend has challenged me on my use of “aspiring” in the title of this blog. It is worthwhile revisiting my rationale. I am curious to see if my position has evolved.
The False Magic of Declaring an Identity
I replied to my friend in an email, saying, in part: This is nowhere better observed in that the many who call themselves ‘Christians’ think they do good when they do good, when in fact they often do harm. To be ‘Christian’ in its perfect form is to act in imitation of Christ – ergo, for me the true, and modest adherents are ‘aspiring Christians’. In the same vein I insist on being an aspiring animist – still mindful that I have not yet attained the power to do good in a sustained way.
My friend was offering a quote from Sir Francis Bacon – “Power to do good is the true and lawful end of aspiring” It is an alluring sentiment, whose sense I do not dispute. Bacon is a popular source of quotes, so I found this one to reinforce my case: “There is a difference between happiness and wisdom: he that thinks himself the happiest man is really so; but he that thinks himself the wisest is generally the greatest fool.”
Wisdom is something we can aspire to, but to think oneself as wise is a folly, and a conceit.
In my reply email I cited Christians simply because I know them well. Naming oneself as a Christian does not magically make one Christian. In fact, naming oneself anything – good, wise, kind – has the same ineffectuality at transferring the virtue to one’s character – or triggering its expression from some latent or dormant internal source.
For me, calling myself an Animist would not make my outlook and habits of mind and heart animistic. The reminder that this is the case is important to me.
I do acknowledge that those less prone to pedantry than I would baulk at adding a qualifier to a description of their philosophical and moral outlook. That’s perfectly fine, if they can maintain a discipline of modestly acknowledging their aspirational status, so long as it pertains, of course.
“Clothes Make the Man”
This is a famous quote about which I quote comments from a blog:
The proverb as it is recorded in Latin by Erasmus (Adagia 3.1.60) is: “vestis virum facit” meaning “clothes make the man.” In the Adagia, Erasmus quotes Quintilian’s (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus) work, Institutions (orat. 8 pr. 20): “To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority.” Quintilian is, in turn, citing the work of Homer who wrote his epics about 7 or 8 B.C. In the Odyssey (6.29–30, 242–3, 236–7), the key lines are: “From these things, you may be sure, men get a good report” and “At first I thought his [Ulysses] appearance was unseemly, but now he has the air of the gods who dwell in the wide heaven.” Thus the impact of making a good impression by way of fine threads and bling was not lost on the great classic writers.
Not to be one-upped by classical writers, Shakespeare (who wore his fine Elizabethan white ruff with great pride and dignity) weighed in on the matter through Polonius: “The apparel oft proclaims the man” (The Tragedy of Hamlet, written c. 1600).
We know scoundrelsdisguise themselves in fine attire, uniforms, and white coats as much as by titles and signals of asserted virtue. The very worst is the cleric with a predisposition to sexually assault children. By attire, by title, and by belonging to a faith, the innocents are fooled and duped and injured.
A Badge of Identity
Over the years I have been involved with people who have identified themselves as ‘priests’ or ‘priestesses’, or as ‘magicians’ or ‘witches’. Many have been devoted to their path. But the need to identify as such, unless it is a formal role, suggests that perhaps the identity means more than the practice, and its philosophy. Some were certainly more devoted to the identity. They saw the trappings and paraphernalia of magic more as supporting their sense of status – than the means to do what their claims to practice suggested.
We all have identities – names we call ourselves to convey something about ourselves. Sometimes that identity is absolute – I am Australian. Sometimes it infers no sense of competence, let alone expertise. Saying one is a Sydney Swans supporter does not carry any implicit import, well most of the time. While saying one is a hairdresser may infer no mastery, there is an expectation of competence, nevertheless. This is why we find qualifying terms like ‘trainee’ or ‘apprentice’ being applied. We distinguish between the novice and the competent.
There is something else in identifying as a Christian (or any other faith) or an Atheist, or an Animist. In part, there is the connection with a set of ideas, or beliefs. There is also a signal about values (except, maybe, in the case of an Atheist) arising from those ideas and beliefs. My experience is that the majority of Christians and Animists I have known are ‘trainee’ Christians and ‘trainee’ Animists. That is to say that, while they may have a certain expertise in the ideas or beliefs of their particular persuasion, they are not adept at expressing its values at a high level.
I struggle to consistently live the values of my understanding of Animism. This is because I had been conditioned to be a materialist for over 40 years before I came across the idea of animism. What I live is a hybrid Materialism/Animism – a spectrum that is slowly moving toward the Animism end.
In a sense, my insistence on keeping the ‘aspiring’ qualifier is in the recognition that it is like a kind of portable personal confessional in which I can reflect on my lapsing back into materialistic thought – which is often – and I am grateful when I catch myself doing so.
At one stage I had idly thought of setting up a group called Materialists Anonymous (MA). Whether we are ‘conditioned’ or ‘addicted’, materialistic thinking dominates us as we seek to escape its dominion.
I wonder if my friend would be happier if I called myself a ‘Trainee Animist’.
A final thought is that ‘Animist’ is an imperfect word. I think we are evolving to a post-materialist consciousness that is more than Animism. Some alternative words have been proposed, but they are, for me, excessively intellectual, and lack personal sense that Animism has.
I am, in fact, an Aspiring (Post-Materialist/) Animist. I have a sense of the goal. Getting there is not just about reframing thought and language; but enlarging the frame of empathy and identity.