The American poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.” I have been thinking lately of this “physical world” which we all inhabit, and how straying too far from it and its truths is unwise, if not disastrous.
Think of the Bible, and the way in which mind, body and spirit are constantly described in terms of physical life–wind, water, air, sun, seed, and soil. This seems to be something that everyone understands, regardless of rank, station, creed, color, or education.
Much of the world is consumed by the physical necessities of existence. Thankfully, we here in America are mostly insulated from the pressing daily problems of food, water, and hygeine. For instance, when we say, “There’s nothing to eat in the house,” we usually mean there is not enough to provide a sumptuous meal, or not exactly what we immediately crave. In actuality, our perceived lack would be considered opulence in much of the world. And, of course, our water–clean, for the most part–comes (hot or cold) as an act of magic…from a tap inside our home.
All of this ease is progress of which to be proud; it has assisted us in eliminating so much needless want and disease, and we should never apologize for innovations which raise our standards of human dignity.
We should also never forget that behind all this convenience, the physical reality of the earth is still our foundation. Sociologists believe that civilizations cannot progress into the realm of art, music, philosophy, religion, etc., without first conquering physical privation. This can be seen to some extent in the devlopment of our own country; men and women hacking their way into the North American wilderness did not have time, energy, or inclination to write sonnets or compose concertos–meaningless abstractions when confronting the realities of basic survival.
And yet, inevitably, any civilized society, once stabilized, will proceed naturally from the things of the earth to the things of the mind. Once the flesh is satisfied, the soul must be, also. If nothing else, there is always the desire, once the story is lived, to tell it and try to make sense of it. Art, music, and literature are man’s way of telling about his journey of existence–progressing organically from the basic truth of “I Am Here,” to the narrative of “How I Am Here,” and finally to the philosophy of “Why I Am Here.”
So we see that the world of ideas is based in the experiences of the earth, in the physical world.
I would conclude, by both experience and observation, that we become sad, useless, and confused when we stray too far from this basic truth–that we are physical creatures. By this I do not mean that we are to be “worldly”–indeed, as Christians we are called out of the world and into a life in Christ, a life in the Spirit, a life in which the Spirit overcomes the base wants of the flesh. What I mean is that when we pile too many purely mental blocks one upon another, they inevitably collapse in a heap of nothingness. When we absorb and accept too many purely “intellectual” things without understanding their origins in the physical world we are engaging in mental games, not in productive thinking which leads to wisdom.
For what it’s worth, my advice for maintaining mental stability is to try to connect each philosophy or idea to some known reality. A baseless idea is the proverbial house built on sand which will slide away into ruin.
The Bible had it right all along, of course.
Addendum: A related idea, the myth of Hercules and Antaeus (from Wikipedia): “[Antaeus] was indefatigably strong as long as he remained in contact with the ground (his mother earth), but once lifted into the air he became as weak as other men. [Hercules], finding that he could not beat Antaeus by throwing him to the ground as he would regain his strength and be fortified, discovered the secret of his power and, holding Antaeus aloft, crushed him in a bearhug. The story of Antaeus has been used as a symbol of the spiritual strength which accrues when one rests one’s faith on the immediate fact of things. The struggle between Antaeus and Heracles is a favorite subject in ancient and Renaissance sculpture.”
*not the “environment”…