Fringe Harbingers of Enlightenment – Literary Experiment of Ibn Tufayl

Being among the earliest readers and admirers of Brown Pundits, it was an honor when Omar Sahib invited me to write here few months ago. Since I blog about diverse topics (like most of you), I hesitated that something might come across as irrelevant.  I’ll keep sharing my thoughts on various topics from time to time. Just starting with a piece on Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.

It is hard to imagine a young kid finishing high school without ever coming across The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe?  Written in 1719 by Daniel Dafoe, it is among the claimants of the auspicious stature of first English novel, and widely believed as a true travelogue upon its inception.  However, there is seldom a casual reader who can trace the legend back to the 17th century roots of literary tradition with an autodidact character at its center; and few are aware about the Arab-Spanish mentor of this optimism in human reason and contemplation, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185).

Almost six hundred years between Dafoe and him, we know very little about the life of Ibn Tufayl, except that he was a polymath, serving as a physician and adviser of Sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf (d. 1184) of the Almohad dynasty ruling Morocco and Spain. It is unfortunate that his complete interdisciplinary work is lost, except his philosophical experiment involving an isolated autodidact, named Hayy Ibn Yaqzan; literally translated as Alive, Son of the Awake.

It is the story of a boy, the nature of whose existence is shadowy to an extent that there are two completely rivaling accounts of his origins. One account ascribes his origin to spontaneous generation from matter; the other is necessarily a legendary human drama in which a royal infant somehow grows up away from society and culture. Being isolated from all intelligent life, he gradually becomes conscious, thereby discovering shame, jealousy, aspiration, desire, eagerness to possess and practical reasoning. He experiences love through affection of his foster doe, and death, as it ultimately departs.

To know is necessarily an obligation for Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Desperately seeking meaning, his search guides him to explore various disciplines such as anatomy, physiology, metaphysics and spirituality. He deduces the presence of God through contemplating  the unity of cosmos and its boundedness; and in his ascetic code of conduct, he seeks satisfaction and salvation.

After thirty-five years of isolation, he finally meets Absal, a hermit refugee from a land of conventional religious believers. In Absal, Ibn Tufayl modeled a religious divine who has learnt many languages to gain mastery of scriptural exegesis. Absal’s first reaction is a deep sense of fear for his faith as he encounters an exotic being. As they interact well, Absal endeavors to teach Hayy to speak and communicate, in order to make him aware of knowledge and religion.

However Absal soon discovers that Hayy is already aware of the truth, to envision which, Absal’s own intellect bears nothing except revealed symbols.

Judging Absal’s good intentions and the veracity of his message, Hayy proselytize to this religion and Absal introduces Hayy to his people. As Hayy gets familiarized with civilization, two basic questions continue to puzzle him in great deal. First, why people must need symbols to assimilate and express the knowledge of the ultimate truth; and why can’t they just experience the reality more intimately? Second, being completely oblivious to practical religion, he continued to wonder why there is an obligation to indulge oneself in rituals of prayer and purity.

He keeps on wondering why these people consume more than their body needs, possess and nurture property diligently, neglect truth by purposefully indulging in pass-times and fall an easy prey to their desires. He finally decides to accompany Absal to his land, thinking that it might be through him that people encompass the true vision and experience truth rather than believing it with their seemingly narrow vision.

What follows is a tale of a neophyte philosopher teaching ordinary people to rise above their literalism and open another eye towards reality. His interlocutors on the other hand, recoil in their apprehensions and being intellectual slaves to their prejudices, close their ears. He consequently realizes that these people are unable to go beyond their usual appetites. He also grasps that masses of the world are only capable to receive through symbols and regulatory laws rather than being receptive to unstained and plain truth. Both men eventually return back to their isolated world but this time Hayy as the teacher and Absal as his disciple. They continue searching their ecstasies until they met their ends.

CHT167325 Robinson Crusoe Building his First Dwelling, 1930 (colour litho) by Myrbach-Rheinfeld, Felicien baron de (1853-1940); colour lithograph; Private Collection; (add. info.: Robinson Crusoe construit sa maison); Archives Charmet; German, in copyright until 2011

Ibn Tufayl’s singularly survived legacy extends in diverse dimensions and its canvas is vast. Its theological and philosophical themes were employed and transformed throughout the various phases of European enlightenment.

It isn’t just one curious aspect that many centuries later, the metaphysically preoccupied Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is transformed into a shipwrecked sailor, predominantly occupying himself with inventions and utilitarian exploration of nature. As Malik Bennabi – an acute observer of modern condition – observes, the genius of both the narratives lies in characterizing the solitude of their respective protagonists. In this respect, time for Robinson Crusoe is essentially a concrete cyclic happening of acts, such as work, food, sleep and work again.

Nov. 4. This morning I began to order my times of work, of going out with my gun, time of diversion, viz., every morning I walked out with my gun for two or three hours, if it did not rain; then employed myself to work till about eleven o’clock; then eat what I had to live on; and from twelve to two I lay down to sleep, the weather being excessive hot; and then in the evening to work again. The working parts of this day and of the next were wholly employed in making my table; for I was yet but a complete natural mechanic soon after, as I believe it would do anyone else.[1]

This is pretty much the condition of a modern individual where the void of solitude is filled with work, each of us occupied mechanically with the object at the centre of our world of ideas, diligently busy in constructing our own proverbial tables.

On the other hand, what fills Hayy’s solitude is an overwhelming amazement, the adventure starting by experiencing wonder in the ultimate nature of life and death of his beloved foster-mother, the gazelle.

When she (the gazelle) grew old and feeble, he used to lead her where there was the best pasture, and pluck the sweetest fruits for her, and give her them to eat. Notwithstanding this, she grew lean and continued a while in a languishing condition, till at last she died, and then all her motions and actions ceased. When the boy perceived her in this condition, he was ready to die for grief He called her with the same voice, which she used to answer to, and made what noise he could, but there was no motion, no alteration. Then he began to peep into her ears and eyes, but could perceive no visible defect in either; in like manner he examined all the parts of her body, and found nothing amiss, but everything as it should be. He had a vehement desire to find that part where the defect was, that he may remove it, and she return to her former state. But he was altogether at a loss how to compass his design, nor could he possibly bring it about.[2]

Thus, it is ultimately in the nature of failure to identify this defective part where Ibn Tufayl tries to locate an ineffable reality beyond the material.  

Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical romance has been regarded as one of the pioneer autodidactic works surviving from medieval scholastic tradition [3]. But besides being an influential narrative   with rich literary possibilities and themes such as those transformed by a modernist like Dafoe  it was a precursor to important medieval interactions between the schools of Thomas Aquinas and Averroists, and invited modern appraisals from mathematician rationalists like Gottfried Leibniz [4].

Voltaire and Quakers admired it for its appeal to reason, and Bacon, Newton and Locke were possibly influenced by it to various degrees too. Traces of Ibn Tufayl’s original literary pointers are also found in Rousseau’s Emile, Kant’s Ground of Proof for a Demonstration of God’s Existence, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Darwin’s Origin of Species among others.

Especially in the context of Muslim tradition, its contemporary value lies in rich possibilities to bridge gaps between reason and revelation. It lays down a perpetually self evolving construct where reason and reflection are the essential keys to the doors of  timeless revelation. Ibn Tufayl’s voice still echoes loud, struggling to tell us that rejecting either would imply rejecting a part of truth.

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  1. Daniel Dafoe, Robinson Crusoe, Penguin Classics 2003
  2. Lenn Evan Goodman, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan: a philosophical tale, 1972.
  3. There have been attributions to an earlier work involving similar but limited themes to Avicenna.
  4. Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought, 2010
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The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

Centuries ago, the Mughal Prince, Dara Shikoh wrote a treatise on the similarities of Hinduism and Islam – Majma-ul-Bahrain or The Confluence of Two Seas. Wading through the songs of sages born on holy riverbanks, Dara discovered striking similarities in Vedic verses with his beloved Sufi stanzas. Dara attempted to bridge Indian and Arab minds to not only bring material peace to communities in strife but also achieve inner peace by uncovering a quintessential spiritual unity.

Dara’s quest would be cut short by his fanatic brother, Aurangzeb, who would usurp the throne and execute Dara for apostasy. A reign of religious terror followed as Aurangzeb’s extremism left permanent scars on the subcontinent until the sparks of saffron would strike back as the upstart Marathas upended the Mughals into obscurity.

Yet, this is just a part of a much more ancient interaction. Before Islam galloped across the world, Arabs were aware of the subcontinent, al-Hind, and an interesting set of interactions played out. There is no grand trend or narrative here, but I want to tell you the story of an Arabia before and after Islam and how it spoke to an India that was eternally Hindu.

Continue reading “The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia”

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Book Review: Islamic Empires- Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization

Justin Marozzi: Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization 

One of the starkest contrasts between the Indic and the Islamic civilizations is the relative importance accorded to the urban. Dharmic philosophies place special emphasis on solitude- going off to the forest to meditate (vanaprasthashrama) and then eventually renouncing the material world (sanyasashrama) are considered important virtues. Dharmic iconography is replete with non-urban landscapes and settings: Lord Shiva meditating in the Himalayas, Lord Krishna feeling most at home in the bucolic settings of Vrindavan, and Lord Buddha renouncing urban life to find the truth. The Monistic underpinnings of some dominant schools of Indic philosophy- the belief that the Divine exists (and can be found) everywhere- further reduces the appeal of urbanism. The final element at play here is geography: Dharmic philosophies flourished in a land of abundance- the sapta sindhu or the land of the seven rivers- a highly fertile landscape. There was little need to create the metaphorical oasis in the desert.

By contrast, Islamic civilization has always been defined by urbanism. The Prophet Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca. He spent much of his life in the cities that define Islam to this day- Mecca and Medina. While there are elements of the spiritual associated with his life- the time spent in solitude in the caves of Mount Hira, for example- the dominant strands of his life were temporal. The building of the empire beginning with the conquests of Mecca and Medina, the dispensing of justice and organising the Ummah. The concept of Jannah or paradise in Islam- a place replete with gardens- also drove the move towards the urban. In a desert region, the quest was to conquer (or build) cities: oasis where the faithful could congregate, protected from the harshness of the surrounding landscape.

Justin Marozzi, an Anglo-Italian journalist who has spent much of his life in the Islamic world, gives this twinning of Islam and urbanism an innovative twist. He seeks to tease out strands of Islamic history by examining fifteen cities across fifteen centuries- one for each century of Islam’s existence. He largely succeeds in his quest to provide a bird’s eye view of a complex and sophisticated civilization, across the arc of its history.

Continue reading “Book Review: Islamic Empires- Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization”

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The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 3)

In my previous two posts, I traced the roots of India as a civilization state and proposed a framework which would seek to retain modern India’s classical Anglo-liberal framework but embellish it with Dharmic values. In this third and final post, I will seek to demonstrate how these seemingly contradictory systems could be reconciled in a coherent Anglo-Dharmic liberal conservative framework. I will also analyse Indian domestic and foreign policy from a liberal conservative perspective. Before doing that, it is worth examining how liberal conservatism would deal with the third great tradition that has influenced Indian history: Islam.

The Muslim Question

The ledger of the Nehruvian state’s interactions with and treatment of Indian Muslims is decidedly a mixed bag. On the positive side, it is to the Nehruvian state’s credit that Indian Muslims were able to see themselves as full and equal participants and stakeholders in the Indian Republic. It is easy to underestimate today how difficult and challenging this would have been in the immediate aftermath of the partition and vivisection of India in 1947. It would have been easy to let hatred and vengeance take over in the aftermath of a bloody division. The Congress party under the stewardship of Pandit Nehru ensured that the better angels of our nature prevailed and the Muslims who remained in India were treated with tolerance and compassion. The basic framework of the Indian Constitution, in particular the golden triangle of equality, freedom and liberty, ensured full and equal citizenship and freedom of worship for Indian Muslims. The wisdom and sagacity of the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic who were the architects of this framework must be applauded.

Continue reading “The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 3)”

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The Indo-Pakistan problem — To be or Not to be

Wagah Border

THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN IN 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the URI ATTACKS with the aim of bringing some nuance in the increasingly binary discussions of Pakistan. Looking back at it in 2020 there are a few points in the essay I mildly disagree with but on the whole, I stand by my arguments. 


For anyone willing to read a shorter -TL-DR version find the link HERE:

Note: This is not a scholarly analysis of Indo-Pak question but an essay ((*mildly subjective)) on the question with references being presented for most of the essay. 


Every well-read Indian who has thought enough about the India-Pakistan issue will have faced Hamlet’s dilemma — “To be or not to be”. It’s fair to assume that national patience, with everything related to Pakistan, is waning very fast nowadays aided by the explosion of social media. Simply put — most Indians have had enough of this shit for 69 + years (the Idea of Pakistan being older than Pakistan). The leftist solution to the Pakistan problem has always been the Aman ki Asha narrative. The reactionary position of some of the Right-wing is to totally boycott anything related to Pakistan every-time a terrorist attack takes place in India. This position though backed by popular opinion at times like this seems to be no closer to a permanent solution to the problem. To come up with potential solutions for this problem, we need to discuss both these approaches and we also need to dig deep into the Nation-state of Pakistan.

 

Continue reading “The Indo-Pakistan problem — To be or Not to be”

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Belief and Reclamation

For eons, ascetics and wanderers would journey to the sacred snow-clad Himalayas to test the fires of their belief. Where the skies met the earth and the heavens met the material world, humans met enlightenment; and their discoveries would cascade down the subcontinent. These beliefs would be ossified by ritual and rite, and a culture would engulf the land between the great Himalayas and an endless ocean – India, that is Bhārata.

And it is this legendary journey from the foothills of the Himalayas to the tip of the subcontinent that a civilizational epic takes place – the Rāmāyana. On August 5th, 2020, the ancient song of Valmiki will echo in the villages, in the cities, in the deserts, the fields, the jungles, the mountains, the waters, and especially in the minds of those who believe. A civilization will enact its long-awaited reclamation.

Continue reading “Belief and Reclamation”

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Book Review: Dominion, by Tom Holland

Tom Holland started off writing vampire novels but moved on to non-fiction and has since written an excellent history of the Persian invasion of Greece, several books about the Romans, one about Islam and one about the slow rise of Christian Europe that started around 1000 AD ; in retrospect at least, all his non-fiction books have had a hint of Christian Western European apologetics (some of it is probably well deserved reaction to the excesses of contemporary wokeness) but this book makes it explicit. Dominion is well written and well researched and he does make a lot of effort to include the nasty bits of Christian history, but in the end it IS a work of Christian apologetics, albeit from a modern liberal angle. Tom Holland’s basic thesis is that almost the entire set of “humanist” values modern liberals take for granted (universal human equality and dignity, separation of church and state, care for the weaker sections of society, suspicion of power, privilege and wealth, condemnation of slavery, cruelty and oppression, valorization of the weak and downtrodden, etc) is purely Christian in origin. No other civilization or culture had these values (or at least, foregrounded them in quite the same way as Christianity). For example, while some thinkers have always been unhappy with slavery,  the abolition of slavery was a Christian effort through and through. True, the slave owners had their own Biblical justification for slavery, but those who opposed them did so on the basis of their Christian beliefs, and they won the argument.

Holland also insists that the most viciously anti-Christian progressive thinkers of the post-enlightenment era also turn out be using Christian values to attack Christianity. When Marx cries out against the oppression of the proletariat or Lennon sings “all you need is love”, they are really being more Christian than most Christians. Since Nietszche thought something similar (that liberalism is “Christianity without Christ”), he gets a lot of positive play in this book, which is a bit ironic, since he also regarded Christianity as something of a disease.

Continue reading “Book Review: Dominion, by Tom Holland”

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Browncast Episode 112: Tarun Sridharan from Odd Compass – Rajas and Sultans

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point.

This episode features Razib and Akshar talking history with Tarun Sridharan, the man behind a very interesting Youtube Channel – Odd Compass. We discuss the Malacca Sultanate, Vijaynagara’s downfall, Maratha success, and various other topics in history. Make sure to check out his Instagram and especially youtube channel which has beautiful and well-researched videos on history (especially Indian!).

Check out his latest video on the history of war elephants:

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Browncast Episode 108: Harsh Gupta on the India-China Conflict and Going Long India

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point.

Harsh Gupta | The Indian Express

This episode features Omar, Mukunda, and Akshar talking to Harsh Gupta, an investor and author. We discuss the big picture geopolitics of the Galwan clash in Ladakh, Indian civilization, and why Harsh is going long on India. Some positive vibes in a trying time for many!

 

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The War Over Myth

When the ancient Cro-Magnon crossed paths with the Neanderthal in prehistoric Europe, a conflict was born. Slowly but surely, the invading Cro-Magnons subdued and supplanted the native Neanderthals into oblivion. The only Neanderthal traces left were fossils and tiny genetic snippets in the Sapiens code. But why did these Cro-Magnons so rapidly succeed the Neanderthals?

Yuval Noah Harari proposes the power of myth.

Origins

In his book Sapiens, Harari posits that it was the ability of ancient humans to create myths that led to triumph over their Neanderthal cousins. Whether it was concepts of religion, trade, country, etc…, the Cro-Magnon coalitions weren’t just strengthened by shared genetic codes but shared mythic creeds. Innovation and legends built from this cognitive revolution gave early humans the tools to not only conquer other species but also each other.

Old myths were now carving new realities.

THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION MAY HAVE ESCAPED THE NEANDERTHAL WHO WAS NO MATCH FOR THE MYTH MAKING CRO-MAGNON.

This blood of fratricide would continue across the ages to the tip of Spartan spears clashing against Athenian shields. In this land of early contacts, people who shared even greater similarities than the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals were still locked in an eternal war over the myths of alliances and city states. Another incarnation would appear in the same land as Greeks and Anatolian “Turks” (who may have shared more DNA with an Athenian than a Central Asian) would come to gunpowder blows with a backdrop of whether Jesus or Muhammed was the supreme prophet.

Of course, one could say these conflicts were all over resources; but myths provided the fuel to the fire. The fictions of community, ideology, and religion were integral to these conflicts; and the legends of their conflicts were peppered with these myths, not over who controlled a salt mine.

The Deviant

History is filled with centralized powers and rulers having a vice grip over their societies’ myths. Nonetheless, massive calamities or upheavals would cause realities to shatter mythologies (much like the coronavirus today). The spread of the internet and social media have upended traditional formulas, and now myths are increasingly divided and divisive.

I came across an extremely interesting yet at times very hypocritical podcast – the Rabbit Hole. It is produced by the New York Times and delves into the story of a young man named Caleb and his radicalization by way of…YouTube. On the way it pairs a fairly centrist Joe Rogan with famous racists such as Stephan Molyneaux and Milo Yiannopolous, designates deviation from mainstream thought as a mental disturbance, and labels dissent against mainstream media as surefire pathway to bigotry.

THE RABBIT HOLE PODCAST FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES.

It is slickly produced, gorgeous in audio, and loudly ironic – as it sounds like a parody of propaganda itself.

Let’s not forget the highlight reel of the New York Times’ myths this year includes lamenting that not enough Indians have died due to coronaviruslabeling the Chinese travel ban as racist, and canceling #MeToo because Joe Biden.

These are the myths that an esteemed and storied American institution propagates. It doesn’t take a mythologist or scientist to tell you that something is off.

Media, academia, corporations, and governments themselves are seeing their stories thrown into bonfires like an Evangelical reaction to Harry Potter books. The sacred myths of the past such as the accessibility of the American Dream, the “natural fit” of the European Union, the hyper-competence of the CCP, India’s minority favoritism in guise of “secularism,” and so many more myths of the elites are being capsized. Populist surges have been inflamed by mismatching of reality and myth, and alternative voices have been given suffrage by the internet.

The Rabbit Hole feels like a reaction. A major institution trying to silence alternative thought (much of which I strongly disagree with myself) as it feels threatened, using every aesthetic and influential trick in its repertoire. It’s a very entertaining yet at times jarring piece of content. It’s so fascinating seeing a media giant so brazenly and fearfully enforce its myth.

Māyā, the Illusion

The Hindu concept of Māyā is multifaceted; but for our purpose today, let’s pin it down to the idea that our world is an elaborate illusion, fueled by attachment, arrogance, and deception. The illusion is tailored. For one, it may be their emotional faults; for another, it’s their addiction; for someone else, it’s their position of power, etc…

Each person has their own māyā. Their own reality. Their own myth.

Institutions have for too long utilized prestige to create precedent. They have gotten used to their word being a given, rather than something that is taken. Now with the coronavirus baring the top-down māyā of the elites and institutions, a bottom-up backlash ensues.

A whole array of new myths and challenges to the status quo are arising. Many of my group chat debates with friends end up being us posting different articles that say wildly opposite conclusions with Herculean confidence – a testament to how we now have a myriad of myths to choose from yet increasing difficulty in discerning our reality. News is no longer news. News is narrative.

Truth is more subjective than ever.

Think Different

The Vedas have described reality as “neti neti” – not this, not that. This comfort with ambiguity is something that is sorely missed in today’s world. The sages who composed the Vedas found ease in ambiguity and accepted the limits of truth. From their verses, flowed the founding myths of the Indian subcontinent; and subsequent philosophers and truth-seekers created their own spin on those myths. Debate, diversity, and a mutual respect became integral to the Indic ethos, something you would never assume today watching the screaming cobblestone screens of Indian news.

FOREVER RADICAL – STEVE JOBS’ PENCHANT FOR REBELLIOUS THOUGHT CHANGED A WHOLE INDUSTRY AND EVENTUALLY THE WORLD

Now is a time to embrace ambiguity. Absolute truths are being overturned by the coronavirus and the cascading economic downturn. From the Federal Reserve’s infinite monetary sprint careening past notions of debt to the WHO’s blatant capitulation to the Dragon, old conventions are imploding to open a path for new strategies, new myths.

This piece is more of a collection of thoughts than a focused message. A quiver of arrows rather than a spear. I want you to leave with questions.

Why should I listen to the media and institutions that have been so consistently wrong? That have a permanent sneer towards me? That seek to sear any speck of debate into ashes?

The war over myths is the story of human progress. Our myths chart the trail of our future. Belief has proven self-fulfilling on an individual as well as societal level. We must make sure that our beliefs are not defined by consistently wrong and Puritanical elites and institutions.

Our myths should come from experience and inquiry. It’s time for conversion. It’s time for reincarnation. It’s time to choose our own mythology.

This is a repost from The EmissaryPlease visit the blog for more content and thanks to Brown Pundits!

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