Know Thyself

What follows are some of my thoughts concerning an article I read some months ago — with the thoughts likewise having being jotted down then, only in a truncated form. The article’s assertions I found very interesting, on a number of grounds. The paper is somewhat renowned in the field of sociocultural anthropology: “Knowledge of the Body” (1983), by Michael D. Jackson, published in the journal Man, 18(2). In it, Jackson details some of the observations he made whilst studying the Kuranko, a tribal people of Sierra Leone (Africa). He especially was concerned with the supposed “symbolic” nature of the Kuranko’s rites and dances, from which he comes to a number of conclusions that I would recommend be read and digested in the original article, which would do it far greater justice that my shorthandedly summarising all of it. I will at length focus on one assertion in particular: that in “preliterate” societies, there is a greater immediacy of the mind with the body and ultimately the environment, and this immediacy results in moral character — morality itself —being regarded as intimately tied to action and the actual structure of the body instead of words, written or spoken. This may all be best summed up in the following excerpt from the paper:

“Words, however charged with connotation, limit the range of choices and render difficult or impossible, and in any case explicit and therefore “falsifiable,” the relations which the language of the body suggest.”… It is because actions speak louder and more ambiguously than words that they are more likely to lead us to common truths; not semantic truths, established by others at other times, but experiential truths which seem to issue from within our own Being when we break the momentum of the discursive mind or throw ourselves into some collective activity in which we each find our own meaning yet sustain the impression of having a common cause and giving common consent [such as dance]…. because one’s body is ‘the nearest approach to the universe’ which lies beyond cognition and words, it is the body which in so many esoteric traditions forms the bridge to universality, the means of yolking self and cosmos.”

borderSo comes the plethora of “primitive” or “superstitious” customs the world-over relating beauty and good posture to the “rightness” of a person’s character, and ugliness or deformity with a devious personality or an innate wickedness. Jackson explains this within the context of the Kuranko, but for myself it evoked the custom of tanistry and kingship in the old, Gaelic society of Ireland. The king or chieftain is he who has the greatest honour and virtue, and as such, he must not have any physical blemish. Given that one’s offspring could have the possibility of being deformed, you would obviously not want to have a system of primogeniture, i.e. the oldest or ablest son of the king indisputably inherits kingship, regardless of his abilities and favour with the gods. Honour, enech, is literally (and figuratively) “face,” after all, and a malformed countenance is a malformed heart (if in no other way that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy — you are regarded more poorly or unfairly by your people because of that malformity as you are brought up, and are therefore more likely to be “abnormal” psychologically). We might also see this intimate link to physical beauty in morality in later Gaelic faery lore, with the usual theme of faeries favouring and seeking out only those mortals who were beautiful, fair of form — for such bespeaks their moral quality and in-born gifts, rather than the frivilous vanity that intellectuals later associated the faeries — and indigenous peoples the world over — with. This reasoning — and the relatively “democratic” selection of the tanist/heir from the most honourable and worthy members of society, indicated in part by their form — seems to attest something of the custom’s antiquity, if we are to believe Jackson’s thesis tying this bodily-moral primacy to the antiquity of pre-literacy  and the relative “egalitarianism” and “meritocracy” observed of such folk.

This contrasts to “literate” societies — societies with writing — which generally, and increasingly throughout history, rely on “abstract” thought and linguistics. This abstraction itself is caused by and reinforces social institutions accompanying literacy — the various machinations of civil societies, from marked inequity to the legislation, legitimation of such inequity  — and which distances man, the individual, from the experiential, immediate realm of “nature,” and even the spontaneity of one’s own “body.” One need not to look far or cast wide into history at all to find countless signs of either point. With the population of civilisations having, since the Industrial Revolution, become largely urban/suburban-dwelling, the majority of people in Western and westernised societies now spend the bulk of their time in “built” environments, artificial environments, with the closest thing to a natural environment in their daily lives being, perhaps, a well-groomed city park. Rather than being outside in such a decorous concrete desert, most further spend much of their time within a box of brick and metal, or matchstick wood and plaster, either in the act of socialising, entertainment, and/or for their job.

The disdain for what is “natural,” that is, “wild,” “undeveloped,” “uncivilised,” has kept pace with this enclosure within artifice — including the disdain for the damnable part of man, the thing that marks him as a part of “nature,” despite all of his efforts to exceed it. The body, the flesh — which, like nature, has been and continues to be associated with the “lower” functions, with those cultures which are less abashed about it being deemed “inferior” and “filthy” to the Western inheritance of “mortifying the flesh,” and just as the natural environment has been steadily eroded and destroy, the body too has been assaulted, its coordination and strength reduced at every opportunity, be it by historic prohibitions on dance, martial exercises, and, as we see in the modern education regiment, a discouragement of physical competency and independence. It is in my opinion that one does much to physically — and, inseparably, mentally — handicap a child by being seated most of his waking day, at any rate.


Ritualised dances and their presupposed “symbolic” meaning were the main preoccupation of Jackson’s study.


In abhorring the body, and separating oneself from the ability to navigate and comprehend natural environs, moral character then becomes judged more symbolically, through “intellectual pursuit,” through the abstraction of “Spirit” (like the Hegelians/Young Hegelians, after the fashion of Christianity), Spirit distilled from and separate from the body and its action. “The Word was made flesh;” the flesh made word — the binding edicts and etiquette of human life/culture which is morality becomes tied more to verbal attestation or verbal feats, spoken and written. But, as we well know, words can be much more deceiving than action. It can be witnessed often enough in the realm of politics today, in which politicians can increasingly get away with any measure of corruption and pronounce blatant untruths to excuse themselves, to which many, or enough, will often accept the word as just so, a measure of the politician’s character and commitment, despite his actions (or lack of) and its ramifications in the  world itself indicating all to the contrary. The Spirit of the thing, or person, as it may be — expressible not by the lowly body, but by the Word alone — is all that matters, the true thing, while the world, nature, actions — reality itself — is relegated to the “backseat” as often as possible.

That speaks to something of why I personally have very little stock in “philosophy” for philosophy/critique’s sake alone, or those who say, with all earnesty, that something has any value as a “critique.” If you have ever lived in, immersed yourself in, anything approaching the real world, you would have learned by now that old axiom — actions speak louder than words. It is very easy to lie, or spin a bunch of incogent gibberish, with words, especially the written word, in a world where the natural, bodily — and therefore, disdained — human skill of forming words with lips has atrophied. You cannot lie with the body, however. One cannot say they are “skinny” when they are clearly obese, one cannot say they can fly when jumping off a cliff demonstrates they drop like a stone. Or rather, one can say it — but it obviously does not match the reality, and therefore it is false.

Forgetting that I think is part of what gives rise to the intellectual/moral state of the modern world. When Spirit has been divorced from the body — when individual minds are given primacy over the bodies and common reality that house them all — everything is supposedly “subjective,” truth is deemed an antiquated or misleading concept, anyone can create or construct their own “reality” because words are regarded as a — THE —creating agency. That is, essentially, a god. The “Word made flesh” — the sentiment of he who constructs his own language, or being ingenious with existing words, being like unto a god, variously expressed by serious thinkers and narcissistic debutant(e)s alike. When you have a society that has become so enthralled of words — especially the written word, as one of the defining features of civilisation and especially accentuated, ascended, in the industrial kind — perception becomes severely, psychotically inverted, with the degree of severity determined by just how obsessively ensnared by text a people has become. Putting the cart before the horse, the word, an ejaculation of the human mind, is thought to construct and be reality, when it is reality that shapes/inform language.

When it does not match or articulate reality, what a language can do is construct illusions — spells, if you would — to confound, bewilder, and obfusticate. So comes the fundamental falsehood at the root of the modern world, the heir to all prior deceits of civilisation’s past, and carrying forth with its own extreme manifestation. Truth no longer exists, because he who trusts the word knows only “semantic truths” — “truths” that are “established by others at other times,” rather than experienced, discovered, tested oneself. “Truths” that are pronounced by words alone, and are therefore subject to all the subjective pitfalls of semantics, arguable, easily contested, as changeable as language. The people raised in a society/culture upheld by semantic “truths” are so enchanted and chained by words that they, again, think reality itself can be truly changed by writing out voluminous tomes or shouting at the sky so much psychobabble, in a true show of “magical thinking,” evidenced by “social” media, academia, and, by and large, the world of “activism” intertwined with those.

Experiential truth — truth through the body, truth obtained by experience, not by decree — is Truth, that which cannot be denied or quibbled away. Experiential truth is common truth, in the commonality we hold of this world that we share and the commonalities people hold with one another via their cultures. Undoubtedly, not everyone experiences things quite the same way, due to physiological and cultural constraints on senses and perception — but it is a farcry to disagree on the colour of a dog, as with one person being  colourblind and the other not, and arguing away the existence of the dog altogether simply because you can make that proclamation. But because of the commandment to mortify one’s body, to turn aside from the “sin” and “pollution” of nature and natural spontaneity, Truth, and all sense of it, the way to know it, has been cast aside by cultures that hold the Word, and all of its seductive psychoses, on high. It calls to mind something of what Nietzsche was driving at, in stating such paralysed creatures — modern men — have wished the body wasting and paltry; but, as the truth lies in the body and its experience, its education, within the world, the atrophy of the body and its tutelage through a diversity of environments and challenges has weakened the grip on reality itself. In scorning the very thing that connects “you” to all else, the body — “one’s nearest approach to the universe” — the vital trust in oneself and in the world, and its accessibility to Truth, is broken. What is left is the retreat of individuals into their own private, fantastical, nihilistic, futile hells, where two plus two equals five, simply because they wish it to be so, declare it thus, whatever reality shows otherwise.

Reclaiming our physical competency, and a love for such competency, would do much to banishing this sociopsychological psychosis that preys on the minds of many living in the modern world.  As Jackson states, there is a reason that many “mystic” traditions across many cultures incorporated a component of bodily praxis, bodily discipline, to achieve “truth” or “enlightenment.” The body demonstrates its truth, its goodness, its ability to harness or withstand the powers or capture the truths outside of itself by exerting and demonstrating its own will — its own concrete actions, undeniable abilities. And in reclaiming ourselves, learning of our powers and how to best to use them, we reawaken at once our lust for life, our lust for deeds — that is, experience and action — that cannot be offered or sated by the canned, deliberately-stunting, prepackaged baubles of the artificial world, the modern world. This can only be offered and sated by the diversity and dynamics of nature and its bounty. The Truth outside of us, of other bodies and their tangible actions, reflected back by one’s own bodily truth. Thus, “bodily praxis” is part and parcel to a genuine ethic of environmentalism, sustainability, or any answer and challenge to the decay of our age.




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