[Note: This is one of several articles that I am archiving here as I phase out an old website, The Four Precepts Web Portal & Spiritual Search Page. While these articles reflect a formative period in my life and thought, they do not necessarily reflect my current opinions.]
The Origin of The Four Precepts
by Wayne Ferguson 14.12.2004, changed 03.11.2005
The thoughts expressed on this website are the outgrowth of the thought that began to occupy my mind in the early 1990’s, toward the end of a long period soul-searching and self-questioning that followed in the wake of what was, for me, the death of God.
Like Nietzsche’s Madman, my life had lost its center:
“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, ‘I seek God! I seek God!’…’Whither is God’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left?'” (The Gay Science, section 125)
Having abandoned my religious faith and having despaired utterly of any meaning and purpose to my existence, I was at a loss to find any enduring motivation for any course of action beyond the satisfaction of my most immediate needs. When it came to any long-term goals or enduring relationships, I was hopelessly confused–I often thought to myself, “my name is legion for we are many!” But after living in that state for far too long, I began to think in a very abstract way, as follows:
1. At the very least, I am a biological organism reacting to a physical environment.
2. Even if there is no ultimate meaning and purpose to my existence, there may still a highest good, of sorts, for me as an individual–namely, that ideal physical and social environment in which even I could flourish.
3. Therefore, it is reasonable to think of myself in that ideal environment as that which I am essentially and potentially–in the same way that an acorn is essentially an oak tree.
At that point, I began to think of my essential self as a reality to be actualized and began to listen for inner promptings and to look for external clues that would lead me in the right direction–my goal being to optimize the degree to which I was able to actualize my essential self. This process appealed to me, in part, because of its striking resemblance to the spiritual life that I had always enjoyed, but which, in my despair, I had abandoned as both false and decadent (a la Nietzsche). Indeed, I began to think of my essential self as my true Self, higher Self, or transcendent Self. Moreover, I began to compare this mysterious Self to what St. Paul describes as Christ-in-you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). The aptness of this comparison was reinforced by my observation of the suffering and death which are intrinsic to human existence. Could it be, as Hermann Hesse suggests in the Prologue to Demian, that each of us are incarnations of God?
In each individual the spirit has become flesh, in each [person] the creation suffers, within each one a redeemer is nailed to the cross. Each [person’s] life represents a road toward [himself or herself], an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No [person] has ever been entirely and completely [himself or herself]. Yet each one strives to become that–one in an awkward, the other in a more intelligent way, each as best [he or she] can.
Of course, the following objection naturally occurred to me: of what use is such self-actualization if we are only to suffer and die in a few years, anyway, having succeeded only to some degree in our efforts to arrive at our goal? Is not a miss as good as a mile? No matter what we achieve, we are still just dead men walking–are we not? I answered this objection in two ways:
1) It is the process that counts–if we despair, we only cut off our nose to spite our face.
2) it may be that we are not merely particular individuals, but rather we are particular individuals unfolding in the light of the universal in which we live and move and have our Being.
As such, the process of self-actualization, might be approached as an end in itself, even from a naturalistic perspective. But a more compelling possibility would be that even though we, as particular individuals, are destined to suffer and die, there is a universal Self, so to speak, which, being both our source and our destiny, would constitute the real meaning and purpose of our existence. This would explain our sense of morality (inasmuch as all particular selves would be essentially related by virtue of the universal Self which they share in common) and it would shed some light on the meaning of self-sacrifice (perhaps when we act unselfishly, we are simply subordinating our particular selves to that which we sense is required of us in light of the universal in which we participate). To be sure, as particular selves we must suffer and die. But our life could in some way be redeemed and preserved in the universal Life which transcends suffering and death. But how better to describe this universal Life than Divine?
This realization was, for me, the resurrection of God. Like the disciples on Easter Sunday, I began at once to rethink all that had transpired–all the assumptions and presuppositions that had led to the death of God in my life, as well as those that had accumulated subsequent to my despair. They all had to be re-examined. Hegel, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard loomed large in my life during this time and led me, eventually back to Kant. Their collective influence, along with that of Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, and Spinoza will be evident in these essays. And Nietzsche is always lurking in the background. But there is another influence that cannot be overestimated: St. Paul.
St. Paul wrote a classic account of inner turmoil and conflict in Romans chapter 7:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (7:15).
Scholars disagree on how to interpret that stage of Paul’s journey relative to the fullness of God’s grace that he also experienced along the way, but one thing is clear:
“…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Therefore, as we “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” we are to remember that “it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). This means that both our faith and our works are the fruits of God’s grace.
Having long wrestled with myself over many possible courses of action, and having often forced myself to do things that were sheer drudgery to me, it occured to me, that this was no way to live. I decided that if I ever hoped to experience real unity of heart and peace of mind, I would need to begin here and now to think myself a unity and to be at peace with myself as God made me and would make me. I reasoned that if there was really such a thing as free will, then I was free to do what I wanted and would begin doing so immediately. But at the same time, I would begin to really trust God to bring my will into harmony with his.
This thought was both terrifying and liberating. For if I began simply to wait upon the Lord for my inspiration, how much of my miserable life would collapse right before my eyes!? On the other hand, if I continued to be miserable and had to keep propping myself up by force, simply because I was ashamed to admit that I had taken so many wrong turns, would my life really be worth living? I decided it would not and determined to quit forcing myself to do anything I didn’t really want to do. I would endeavor to quit reacting to situations out of fear and guilt and despair. If I did not feel an authentic desire to preserve some element of my existence, I would simply let that element fall by the wayside. In time, I hypothesized, much of the extra weight would be gone and I would be really living again!
From this point on, the confusion of the madman began to wane and a new cheerfulness took it’s place:
“[Indeed, we feel] as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; . . . the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea.'” (The Gay Science, section 343–Note: This was Nietzsche’s reaction to the death of God, but describes very well my experience of his resurrection).
By this time, three of the four precepts had already begun to crystallize in my mind. Nietzsche’s unconditional Yes to life and his mistrust of the spirit of revenge seemed generally compatible with a life of faith, whatever the limitations of his overall philosophy. Depending on the nuance of interpretation, I felt these notions would fit in rather nicely with much that I had learned from Spinoza and Kierkegaard, not to mention Jesus and St. Paul.
Additionally, I had learned from Hegel that
Consciousness must act solely that what it inherently and implicitly is, may be for it explicitly; or, acting is just the process of mind coming to be qua consciousness. What it is implicitly, therefore, it knows from its actual reality. Hence it is that an individual cannot know what he is till he has made himself real by action. —The Phenomenology of Spirit
Thus, it finally begin to dawn on me that my goals and relationships could not rest exclusively on my abstract analysis of what might be theoretically possible. Better to follow the promptings of my heart, I reasoned, than to waste another minute beating my head against the stone wall of such merely abstract possibilities. From that point forward, I decided that these simple rules would guide me as I endeavored to actualize that which I Am essentially:
- Say Yes to life unconditionally
(harbor no regrets, no if onlys, rather, take up your cross)
- Overcome the Spirit of Resentment and Revenge
(don’t blame others for your problems; both your neighbor and your enemy are in some sense yourSelf)
- Follow Your Bliss
(do what you really want to do and accept responsibility for your actions)
Moreover, since I had begun to think of my essential Self as a kind of Divine power undergirding all that exists, I judged that this power was in some sense both the source of my motivation and the object of my desire. As such, it would be reasonable to trust my desires– generally speaking — to lead me in the right direction. But since it was also a species of desire that was the source of much of the conflicts and confusion in my life, I began, as best I could, to distinguish between authentic desire and inauthentic desire. The former, I decided must require a more subtle and centered discernment, while the latter might often constitute a temptation inasmuch as it originates from a more superficial or peripheral aspect of myself. It was in light of these considerations that I added Remember your Essential Self to my list of rules as the sine qua non of the entire project. Later, this became Remember your Divine essence, the first of The Four Precepts:
I reasoned that the first three would help me avoid indulging quite so many inauthentic desires and would also tend to minimize the destructive effects of those that I did choose to indulge. Over time, I believed, I would become more discerning and more resolute as I came to know and to be that which, on another level, I already Am:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (I John 3:2).
This describes, in broad strokes, the origin of The Four Precepts which I compiled and arranged over a period of a year or two in the early 1990’s. The first, in its more mature form, alludes to the Platonic doctrine of recollection; the second and third are, in part, my acknowledgment of the Nietzschean critique of religion and morality; and the 4th is borrowed from Joseph Campbell. To understand better what they mean to me and what possible use, if any, they may be to you, read the collection of essays on this website. *
[* Editor’s Note: Additional essays from TheFourPrecepts.Com will be posted in the coming months, Lord willing. ]