The Higher Man in the modern world: a short survival guide

Can the Higher Man participate in the modern world, elevating his surroundings and giving those around him a glimpse of the transcendental even as he participates in worldly affairs? This is the question that confronts us today with so many spiritual people living in modern cities, with their fast pace of life and often superficial relations between people.

We should caution ourselves at the beginning. This brief survival guide for the Higher Man is not intended to enable the individual to plug into “the system” while fooling himself that he is in some above it. It is intended to enable him to be conscious that even the modern world is descended from the ancient, the classical, from Tradition, and, as such, that its values are open to him at all times. Zen Buddhists say that wherever you are and whatever you are doing, that is the perfect place and perfect activity through which to meditate. The spiritual man should endeavor to act in accordance with Tradition no matter what he is doing.

The modern “spiritual” practitioner is generally of two sorts: Either he sees little more to modernity than the degradation of Tradition, or he fits himself into modernity, surrounding himself with those aspects that he likes and that seem to rehash certain cliches — music that consciously evokes ancient spirituality, psychedelic experiences, “alternative religion” and so on — that immunize him from the world as it is. The latter is to subsist in a dream world — until the outside world breaks in — and the former is to exist in a nightmare.

The fundamental quality of the Higher Man is his ability perceive spirit through the ruins of the material no matter where he is. Hence Sun Tzu speaks of “Heaven” being a factor in, and a consideration in preparation for, war. The ancients saw their vocation — from farming to metallurgy, and from warfare to weaving — as intrinsically part of Nature. Trade guilds, both East and West, into the modern era, were bound together by codes of ethics, religious ties and semi-religious rituals. Law was based on natural law, and natural law was seen as those laws that Divinity Himself had established.

Enter the Higher Man

The Higher Man should be able to appreciate higher things. There is a great line in Aleister Crowley’s Liber Al vel Legis, and it’s relevant here: “A King may choose his garment as he will […] but a beggar cannot hide his poverty.” We’ll talk about dress momentarily, but we should consider this in relation to those other aspects that we’ll be looking at. A symptom of the modern world appears to be that the lowly are treated as Kings; the pop star is seen as a moral guide or intellectual; mass murders receive “fan letters” in prison; and so on. In contrast, the authentically spiritual man or woman often finds themselves thrust into a world that they find debased.

Fundamentally, then, when it comes to the modern, secular world of mass culture, when we consider the Higher Man (Chinese: Chun Tzu — this is sometimes translated as “gentleman”) we are considering composure, strength of character, learning and appreciation of the arts, a sense of spirituality, and ability to live in accord with the Higher or, what the Chinese call, the Tao.

Here we want to peel back the curtain of history, to become conscious of the spiritual roots of much of the modern world, as a short survival guide for those who live very much in the world. We want to understand these roots, precisely because we want to lean on these to help us retain our composure. This brief guide will look at the elements of those things that we typically must participate in at some time or another: social, family, formal and business functions.

The black and white, cliched way of looking at the world has led us to separate spirituality and the ordinary, which is, of course, completely incorrect, and even counter-initiatic. I very much respect Zen Buddhism, and undoubtedly am influenced by it to a considerable extent. While I also very much appreciate the Zen temple’s insistence on wearing a traditional black kimono, it should be understood by practitioners that this was adopted by Zen precisely because it was the ordinary dress of the Japanese at the time of Chan Buddhism’s emergence in Japan.

Dress:

In the contemporary Western world, the “business suit” is seen as antithetical to spiritual dress. We should not lose sight of the fact that the “business suit” was formerly known as the “gentleman’s suit” — and perhaps we should revive that title, since there is a vast difference between the “gentleman” (Chun Tzu) and the “business man.” The latter is concerned with commerce. The former is concerned with ideals, ideas, culture.

The suit is complex. But most men who wear a suit look awkward. They often appear like children. Their suit is often too large, especially around the shoulders. It seems to swamp the individual, who normally wears it as a kind of secular uniform — even as the uniform of secularism. “Style,” English-born novelist and later New Yorker Quentin Crisp reminds us, “is consciousness.” We can see this in the Japanese painter who, embodying Zen, breathing with the strokes of the brush, creates works that are at once of his style and universal. But this applies also to dress, manner, eating, and so on. The Higher Man is not slovenly.

You may have wondered why the suit jacket feels entirely different — thicker, stiffer, etc. more fitted — than your pants (British English: “trousers”) made of the same material. Between the lining of the jacket and the outer cloth there are approximately 40 pieces of fabric (including a kind of canvas traditionally made from horse’s hair), and various kinds of stitching. The construction seems to owe something to armor. And it has a purpose: to hold the body upright, with the arms by the sides. If you pay attention to the construction you’ll notice that the gentleman’s suit holds the torso in essentially the same posture as it is held in meditation. The body is upright, but in a natural posture.

Survival tip: When purchasing a suit, make sure it fits properly, and that it seems to draw out your noble — gentlemanly — aspects. You should appear as a man of Tradition, linked to the thinkers of the past, and embodying the notion of the Higher Man. Don’t opt for outlandish colors or fabrics. Prefer more traditional fabrics and prefer fitted to loose fit. When wearing a suit, remember that you are a gentleman. Remember your posture — that it is that of the “upright man” — and that it is essentially that of someone in meditation. Leave the bottom button of your suit jacket undone (that’s how the suit is traditionally worn). Don’t wear a tie with brash color or pattern. Make sure it is classical — perhaps with a twist, such as a bias stripe in muted tones. And prefer thicker, quality ties since the knot is always better on these.

Food:

Many spiritual people view Western food as essentially anti-spiritual. It is as if Western cuisine has somehow been on a trajectory to fast food — which I advise you to avoid. By contrast, although Westerners often have no idea about the etiquette of eating non-Western food, they often view it as somehow inherently spiritual.

Coming from England, I can say for certain that Western food can be appalling. I became a vegetarian as a youth, partly to avoid the full horror of the British meal. I have since eaten meat, but am now, again, a vegetarian. But, this is what the spiritual person should know: Western cuisine was profoundly affected by the theory of the four humors, developed and propagated by Galen ((AD 129- c.210), physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. (The roots of the four humors extend further back in time to earlier Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles, Plato, and Aristotle, and to the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates.)

According to this theory, four qualities, ‘warm’, ‘cold’, ‘dry’, or ‘moist’ exist in the human body, with one quality dominating. Each of these are, accordingly, related to a particular humor existing within the body, helping to either sustain health or cause sickness, and giving rise to a particular ‘complexion’ (i.e., either a personality-type or physical appearance). Blood, we may note, was considered the most important humor, the others being phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.

Physicians took a great interest in the qualities of foods, often prescribing a corrective diet, of specific vegetables and meats (each of which were classified according to the theory of the four humors, with some designated as cold and wet, and others, warm and dry, etc.) through which the patient’s humor was ‘thinned’.

The theory spread far beyond Greece. In Norman Britain, in aristocratic circles, meals were prepared in such a way, it was believed, that would balance the humors. Thus, vegetables and beef (considered dry) were boiled to add moisture, while veal, poultry, etc., thought to be merely moderately dry, were baked in a pie, since the pie crust protected the meat from over drying. Fish (considered cold and moist), on the other hand, was fried so that it could be heated, as well as dried by being exposed to the air. Sauces became the essential ingredient of each meal because, it was believed, its blend of multiple ingredients of different qualities would aid the desired fusion of ingredients, especially where their qualities seemed to oppose one another (e.g., hot and dry with cold and wet).

There are other aspects of the meal besides the consideration of health, of course. Painters have often used food as symbols, with the 17th century Dutch in particular making use of the meal to represent Christian ideas — bread and wine representing the Eucharist, fish representing Christ, sugar denoting the “sweetness” of Christ.

Survival tip: When eating a meal, choose quality over quantity. Eat ethical food if at all possible. Remember correct manners. Entertain with anecdotes that embody Higher values. Remember that Western cuisine is rooted in the idea of balance and health (physical and spiritual). If eating Western cuisine, choose food based on Galen’s principles, and remember the transcendental symbolism of those foods whenever possible, to connect you to the authentic spiritual Tradition.
Meeting and greeting others:

Meals are often eaten communally. Generosity is a feature of many traditional cultures, East and West, with strangers often provided with food without question. Sometimes there is a semi-religious connotation to this. Buddhist monks and nuns and some Hindu devotees must beg for their food, and receive it either from the community or from strangers. Yet more transcendental, according to the Rule of St. Benedict — used by Roman Catholic, Benedictine monasteries — a guest is to be received “as Christ.”

Survival tip: “He alone knows who wanders wide [in the world], and has much experienced, by what disposition each man is ruled,” says the medieval Icelandic book the Prose Edda. On meeting someone we should understand — in the words of Crowley — whether they are a beggar or a King. But we can also receive them as Christ; i.e., acknowledging their faults, and not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by them, we can nonetheless acknowledge this person as — as Islam’s Imam Ali has said — an “equal in creation.” By remaining composed we can refuse inwardly to be dragged down to the level of those whose actions are faulty, and instead draw them up, momentarily at least, toward our level.

Drinking:

We all know how alcohol can drag the individual down to the lowest level. But since the ancient Greek Symposium (meaning literally “with drink”), the consumption of alcohol has been part of the Western Tradition. The purpose was not drunkenness, but to create a community that would discuss philosophy, the arts and Higher things.

In Northern European culture, too, drinking was part of elevated culture. Despite the image of the Norse as drunks and barbarians — an image more befitting of our own time in many instances — Norsemen were strongly admonished not to get drunk. Drunkenness meant vulnerability. Here are two quotes from the Poetic Edda:

Less good there lies than most believe
In ale for mortal men;
For the more he drinks the less does man
Of his mind the mastery hold.

And, recalling our Crowley quote:

The fool is agape when he comes to the feast,
He stammers or else is still;
But soon if he gets a drink is it seen
What the mind of the man is like.

The meal, and drinking has remained of importance, perhaps partly to sort the wheat from the chaff. The early Christians met in underground cells or private rooms to eat a meal together, drink and worship. The trade guilds — which had a religious element to them — gathered for communal meals, at which time initiations of new members would sometimes take place. In Freemasonry, the Ritual originally took place at least partly during the meal. According to James Anderson, in his rules or “Charges of a Free-Mason” (1723):

You may enjoy yourselves with innocent Mirth, treating one another according to [your] Ability, but avoiding all Excess, or forcing any Brother to eat or drink beyond his Inclination, or hindering him from going when his Occasions call him, or doing or saying any thing offensive, or that may forbid an easy and free Conversation; for that would blast our Harmony, and defeat our laudable Purposes.[6]

Survival tip: If drinking, avoid cheap alcohol, and avoid drunkenness. Drink traditionally-produced alcohol that does not contain modern chemicals, and drink only to the point where your conversation is elevated.

Ethics:

None of the above would be of much importance were it not for the ethics, morals, and inner being. Implied in this brief survival guide is the notion of gnosis (Arabic: ‘Irfan), that is to say the possibility of the individual raising up his consciousness so that he understands something at a higher level. In Freemasonry this means understanding symbols and related texts at different degrees, in accord with inner spiritual development. In Islam this means understanding the Quranic suras at different levels (according to Sufism there are between seven and 700 levels of meaning to each sura). In Hindu and Buddhist esotericism likewise it means comprehending texts and the relation of the initiate to Divinity at higher and higher levels.

Survival tip: In this short survival guide we have introduced the initiate to an inner level to ordinary culture so that he can function at a higher level in the modern world. As the Higher Man, the initiate should familiarize himself with, and internalize, codes and philosophies of ethics and behavior, whether natural law theory, Confucianism, or something else, in order to understand, and have a spiritual basis for, his behavior. If you have any additional survival tips for the Higher Man, we’d love to hear them.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.


[1] R. B. Onians, The Origins of European thought, p. 217, see also pp. 215-216.

[2] Plutarch, Symposiacs, p.273.

[3] Plutarch, Symposiacs, pp.293-294.

[4] Galen, Selected Works, p. 308.

[6] James Anderson, The Constitutions of the Free-Masons, p. 54, VI. Of Behaviour, 2.

 

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