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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.67 n.3 Pretoria Jan. 2011




Self-transcendence and Eros: The human condition between desire and the infinite



Cornel W. du Toit

Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa, South Africa

Correspondence to




This article treats self-transcendence - like all transcendence - as a fact of human life. Inter alia this means that the human mind perforce operates in terms of binary concepts such as finitude-infinity, inner world-outside world, self-other, desire-fulfilment, separation-union and the like. We find these concepts in most myths of origin. The concept of desire (Eros), combining unfulfilment and the infinite, particularly epitomises self-transcendence. Ralph Waldo Emerson is cited as a precursor of the mid-19th century transcendentalists, whose ideas are resurfacing in present-day secular spirituality. In this article, we examined desire in the Christian conception of the Fall as envisioned by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and by Hegel, who integrates mind and nature in his philosophy of Spirit. The works of Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur are used as points of reference to help us understand self and other in a framework of self-transcendence. The impact of these ideas on a postmetaphysical epistemology was also explored. Affectivity is a neglected area in Western thought and displays the same infinitude as rationality. The article concluded with present-day strategies of self-construction in a techno-scientific consumer culture.




Transcendence and post-transcendence

Ours is a post-transcendent era. Human dogma has unravelled God, metaphysics has unravelled existence and science has unravelled the cosmos. People have become transparent to each other and no longer relate. The world around us has become explicable and we are left disillusioned in a disenchanted environment. The postmodern mind mourns the loss of mystery, the challenge of the unknown, the desirable and enticing, and the loss of an enchanted world. When we speak of the death of God, the end of metaphysics, the end of subjectivity and the technological transformation of nature, we are actually speaking of a loss of transcendent experience. We do not merely mourn the loss but are continually looking for new experiences of transcendence. Yet does a statement like 'the death of God' not rule out any experience of radical transcendence?1

We need to redefine transcendence for those who no longer believe that our world is governed by such unknown forces. Metaphysical constructs that were once used to describe supernatural forces (good or evil) have lost their plausibility. Our world is subject to laws of nature and these laws, rather than miracles or supernatural forces, rule our destiny. The role of transcendent forces in people's personal lives, too, is questioned. We should not look for divine or impersonal agents to explain misfortunes that befall us. Evil, suffering and injustice are part of life, of our particular society, or simply coincidence. Does that mean that human life has become one-dimensionally immanent, or is it merely a new phase in our mental evolution? The transcendent (unknown forces and influences) has not vanished from human life, but is at most regarded as an immanent factor residing mainly in the self. Transcendence, in the sense of unpredictable, unfathomable but also exciting and innovative forces, is to be found in the unconscious, the imagination, dreams, conscience, desire and fantasy. These are things that constitute our daily lives, a protean driving force. They can be called infinite, for they appear to be inexhaustible and manifest differently in every phase of life. To many, the cardinal form of transcendence remains the God of their religion, to whom they relate. To others it is the interior space of the self, whose unfathomable depths they must plumb. This is done via a mystical 'journey' into the self, culminating in a transcendent experience, in which the self encounters God or astonishing ideas.2 The contemporary reinterpretation of transcendence and self-transcendence evident in secular spirituality and aspects of the New Age movement has its antecedents in the transcendentalist and Romantic movements in mid-19th century America, in which Ralph Waldo Emerson was a leading figure.

My thesis, in a nutshell, is as follows. Transcendence is innately human and manifests itself in desire, which is open and infinite. Christianity attributes transcendence exclusively to the 'totally other' dimension of God. It disregards the fact that the human mind is wired for transcendence. Humans -including their openness to the future (desire) - are reduced to sinfulness. The sole, remotely positive characterisation of humans is that they are created in God's image - and that quality they have lost. In the Old Testament they await the Messiah to bring deliverance; in the New Testament they gain it purely in their attributed (Pauline) status of being 'in Christ'. The closest it gets to acknowledging openness and desire, which is what I propose doing here, is the dictum: 'Become what you are.' But even this dictum is hamstrung by the Christian ethos of that age. In our present context of immanent transcendence this fixated anthropology is incongruous. My basic premise, to be developed below, is that we are wired for desire in its open, infinite, future-oriented dimension. Transcendence is integrally human; hence religion, imagination, inventiveness, fantasy and constant flux are permanent features of our history. Immanent transcendence is an anthropological datum. It is not confined to Europe and Western culture. Desire in the sense proposed here is common to all cultures: African, Eastern and Western alike.

I begin my argument by outlining the transcendental tradition that started with Emerson. I then examine human incompleteness between desire and the infinite with reference to the Greek legacy, before looking at Christianity's relative disregard for desire and infinitude as essential to the human self, with specific reference to the biblical myth of the Fall and some responses to it. The next sections describe the infinitude of the self in relation to that of others and the role of affect as an essential corrective to religious and scientific rationalism, which allows little room for openness. Finally, I offer a critique of the infinite dimension of the self in a consumer culture.


Emerson: Transcendence via the unconscious, affect, Eros and nature

Emerson's thinking is an essential background to understand the pertinence of immanent transcendence in our day and age. He was a forerunner of the accent on transcendence as part and parcel of the human self. He not only acted as a counterweight to the rationalism of his time, but paved the way for present-day secular spirituality. Emerson described his time (the mid-19th century) as bogged down in conventional traditions, dogmas and practices, partly as a result of the tyranny of rationalism (experienced at Harvard Divinity School where he studied and in the Unitarian Church where he ministered). The affective side of human nature was suppressed, so the people of his day were cut off from their emotional roots:

The primary deficiency of the age was ... its inability to connect with the primal, erotic, instinctive, and intuitional element within, the affective side of humanity that connects us with divinity itself and also binds us to one another.

(Gougeon 2007:4)

Emerson's transcendental philosophy3 propounded the dignity, rights and divinity of all human beings. It contributed greatly to the emancipation of slaves and the establishment of women's rights. Today, human rights are the very core of social ethics. Emerson's transcendental vision was one of personal harmony and primordial union with nature, God, the unconscious, affect and intuition. Alienation is the result of losing contact with our matrix. In the beginning the gods divided a solitary Human (Man) into many people, just as the hand ramifies into fingers in order to be more efficient. That lost unity can be regained. 'For Emerson the source of this original unity is still with us. It is the power of Eros, the Over-Soul, the "divine Reason"' (Gougeon 2007:6). Our overrated rationality needs to be complemented with all other aspects of existence to restore wholeness:

The balanced unity of mind and body, conscious and unconscious, self and nature, is an essential element in reaching transcendence which, for them, was the firsthand experience of divinity.

(Gougeon 2007:49)

To Emerson's mind we can overcome our dissatisfaction with overrated rationality4 by means of a transcendental descent into the depths of our nature, which brings fulfilment not attainable in a one-dimensionally rational5 existence. In contrast to the Christianity of his day, which he considered oppressive, he did not seek fulfilment in a spiritualised reality. Instead of a transcendental encounter via Holy Scriptures or proclamation, or via a spiritualised 'beyond' or 'above', he proposed a movement, via human corporeality, first inwards, then outwards (see Gill 1989). Human nature, or more specifically the unconscious, affect, intuition, eroticism, the imagination and experience, is the primary route to meaning, a sense of unity, authenticity and one's 'true' self. Emerson contributed greatly to belief in the self and its powers, so typical of the New World and the great American Dream. Faith in yourself leads to discovery of the infinite, nature, Eros, the Over-Soul, the imagination, God within you. Only faith in yourself makes the difference that enables you to change the world around you. Hence the transcendent movement was prerequisite for changing the society of Emerson's day: 'sympathy, emotion, imagination, dream, and other life-sustaining functions of the unconscious, could provide the libido ballast to revitalize and redeem his society ...' (Gougeon 2007:109).

Emerson laid the foundation for a mentality that, with growing affluence and technological advances, culminated in the present (mainly Western) self-image, which has made self-construction through technological artefacts a practical reality. Today there is renewed interest in a sense of holistic union with nature, a transcendental inward journey (meditative practices), a reappraisal of the corporeal and affective dimensions of life, an accent on imagination and inner creativity, and the like.


Human incompleteness between desire and the infinite

Transcendence is a mental movement, a thought process: it entails moving from familiar sameness to the new and the unknown; it represents mystery in the mode of strangeness and infinity. Human beings exist in this transcendent mode. Self-transcendence is a tautology because the self exists only in transcendent mode.6 Humans experience themselves as individuals, persons, subjects and see themselves as distinct from other people and things. That accounts for binary contrasts such as inner world and outside world, subject and object, self and other, consciousness and self-consciousness. The distinctions are not absolute, because the 'autonomous self' is in fact shaped by people and things outside itself.7 Hence self-transcendence does not happen exclusively within the person, between the constructs of 'I' and 'me'.8 The way we engage continually in new interactions and see things differently changes our identity. As my insight into people and things changes - a constant 'self-correction' - I also change, for I am my insights and beliefs. Without the other self and self-transcendence make no sense.9 Emmanuel Levinas realised this and worked it out in his philosophy of 'the face of the other', to which we return below.

It would be reductive to regard descriptions and experiences of transcendence in a particular theological or religious phase of human culture as paradigmatic for our day and age. Transcendence manifests itself spontaneously in a form permitted by a particular culture and worldview. The specific manifestations of transcendence and self-transcendence vary from age to age, but their underlying biological constant is desire.

Aristophanes's myth about the origin of human nature in Plato's dialogue Symposium (189c-190c) associates the experience of human incompleteness with our origin. In broad outline the picture is as follows.10 Originally we were very different from what we are today. We were 'dual' beings with two heads, four arms, four legs and round bodies that enabled us to roll on the ground at great speed. There were three 'genders': a dual female, a dual male, and a man-woman combination. This original state was superior to our present one - we were stronger in the sense of being more complete. By contrast our present situation represents a 'fall'. The sole problem was human hubris. 'We desired, in what may be called the pagan version of Original Sin, to overthrow the gods' (Hyland 1995:113). To punish us Zeus split us into two beings, knotting the skin at the navel so when we look down it will remind us of our former glory and move us to humility. Of course, at the same time Zeus doubled the number of human beings, thus increasing the supply of offerings to the gods. The god Eros was also born to this divided fallen state. He has three 'elements'. The 'ontological' element is the imperfect, incomplete human condition. People are erotic but incomplete. The second element of Eros is recognition of the incompleteness, and the third the striving to surmount it by reverting to the original state of fulfilment (completeness). That explains our comical attempts to unite sexually with our other half:

We take all those funny positions and get so passionately excited because we want to overcome our physical incompleteness and become whole again ... In principle, all the myriad ways in which we are incomplete, experience that incompleteness, and strive to overcome it, are manifestations of our erotic natures.

(Hyland 1995:115)

Plato's Symposium tells Socrates's story of his experience with Diotima to explain the nature of love (Eros). Eros cannot be divine, because he is composed of opposing entities. His father, Poros, the God of plenty, was seduced by Penia (poverty). Because of his parentage he is alternately poor and rich, oscillating between affluence and penury, wisdom and folly. Here Eros symbolises desire, which always oscillates between fulfilment and unfulfilment. This is typical of human beings, who not only oscillate between want and abundance, but remain unsatisfied even in times of plenty and, like Eros, constantly strive for fulfilment, as evidenced by the history of eroticism in human life (see Du Toit 2010:65-67). Thus humans were destined for eroticism, for incompleteness from the outset, and they are aware of it. They are not responsible for their sense of incompleteness and unfulfilment, nor can they control it - it is a result of the 'original sin' of their ancestors. Secondly, they cannot but try to surmount their incompleteness; and thirdly, they are doomed to failure (Hyland 1995:118). Aristophanes sees the manifestations of Eros as polysemous: the creation of laws, artistic creativity, philosophy, all the noblest human aspirations. In this sense Eros also offers comfort (Hyland 1995:121, 123).

Thus self-transcendence may be seen as erotically driven, for it suggests:

that behind action lies dissatisfaction with what one has, desire to have something else; behind going lies not wanting to be here, wanting to be there. From the standpoint of the agent 'there' is better, 'here' is worse.

(Barabas 1977:178)11

Even though the driving force of self-transcendence is desire, we cannot conceive of life without it. Without desire the world is tedious. An example is Ulysses's rejection of Calypso's offer of immortality: he prefers the excitement of being human to the boring perfection of the gods. 'Here deathlessness and agelessness don't mean divinity but the never-endingness of hell' (Barabas 1977:182). Voltaire's Candide is equally bored in the perfect Eldorado, where nothing is lacking except the thrill of desire (Du Toit 2007:269).12

In the final analysis, the paradisiacal harmony described in myths of origin is as unending as desire.13 The Old Testament story of the Fall presupposes a paradisiacal state, but who really knows what that was? The notion of paradisiacal bliss, like the notion of infinity, can only be understood in terms of human experience of need and desire. Poros's abundance is as infinite as Penia's want. Perfect harmony in its infinitude is unknowable. Plato connects Eros with the idea of creation and, as Paul Riceour (1986:13) states, creation entails a dual infinitude: 'All things emerge from nothingness and are borne toward the infinite'. The same applies to any science that grows from the nihil of genesis. This mixture of finitude and infinity, of fulfilment and unfulfilment characterises the development of thought from mythos to logos. Logos does not mean unadulterated, unequivocal truth. It is never free of myth. That is why it resorts to metaphors, models and analogies, all strategies indicating that we do not fully know.

Sin reinterpreted in the foregoing way is crucial for our notion of transcendence as expounded here; it is vital if religion is to retain its allure. The next sec