The Sanskrit term for Ascesis is ‘tapas’, which means both ‘to discipline’ and ‘to make glow’. Ascesis is about discipline and glowing, achieving a higher state of experienced intensity. This is effectively an eternal dimension of philosophy; philosophy’s history has produced no progress with respect to Ascesis. On the contrary, this aspect has mostly been forgotten. And philosophy’s failure here is something more profound than Heidegger’s account of the forgetting of the true nature of being, though the latter points in the right direction. Heidegger’s Being is still a forgetting of Ascesis, given that it is clothed in the tragic pathos of finitude (which is still a forgetting of tapas).
The problem of the beginning of philosophy is well known. One must choose a preliminary approach and then forget the choice, refusing to acknowledge its contingency. One then builds a massive edifice on the contingent axioms the approach chosen, a castle on a cloud - which makes the cloud invisible. Any philosophical edifice, it seems, is doomed to be lacking in ‘firm foundation’ and self-deceiving in this way.
That is, any philosophical edifice that is attempting to provide a single, unified perspective. But this is not the only option. To me it seems more honest to note that there are four possible approaches (what I call the Four Cardinals) and that each approach corresponds to a mode of will that is to some degree not accountable - or at least not consciously chosen. The human being who chooses to philosophize will either focus on personal liberation from suffering (Ascesis, contact with God), precise and exhaustive accounting and symbolization of the world (Catharsis), the communication of something that has never been expressed but is prenumbrally available, so to speak, in the philosopher’s environment (Fervor) or to legislate for the world in a concrete way, perhaps creating an actual institution (Majesty). These four types correspond to fundamental individual dispositions, created by some combination between natural inclination and particular experience of being initiated into society - a particular individual will always thirst for one of these four outcomes and will typically disdain the other three. Human culture as a whole can be classified as the history of collective efforts at these four fundamental modes of will, respectively generating something along the lines of religion, science, art, and politics.
But, in my opinion, to stop here, with a taxonomy of modes of will, is not enough. One then has to order the approaches - as an ascending path of liberation - and construct a provisional system that derives from all four. This is why I have proposed the four arenas of philosophy: Axiology, Metaphysics, Cosmogony, Eschatology, which are bodies of theory derived respectively from the four Cardinals, in the order listed. To be capable of Metaphysics, one must have already passed through Axiology; to be capable of Cosmogony, one must first pass through Metaphysics etc. In essence, Axiology awakens me to the meaning and field of possibility of my own life, and an account of Metaphysics and Cosmogony make it possible to think clearly about the meaning and field of possibility for all of civilization, which is Eschatology.
Once the ascent to Eschatology has been completed, the work of art can begin, which has a narrative and representational aspect called Ark Work as well as a libidinal and intuitive aspect called Aesthethics.
Kant posited that will is inextricable from judgment: one can only have goals if one has representation, concepts, a manifold of sensation etc. Schopenhauer proposed that will is more primordial than judgment, separable from it, a kind of cosmic, painful striving which produces representational manifolds only in certain cases. But he then went on to judge the will itself - pejoratively. Of all the figures in German Idealism, Schopenhauer is the only true ascetic, the only one with a genuinely religious attitude towards the world (despite his avowed atheism). To turn the will against itself, to negate it - as Schopenhauer recommended - is the fundamental ascetic gesture. But isn’t his version of asceticism ludicrously shallow compared to that of, say, the Upanishads (which he frequently invoked)? Genuinely religious asceticism always opens the ascetic to a higher world of angels and metaphysical realities that satisfy the will on a higher plane. Being a transcendental philosopher, Schopenhauer could not permit the existence of these higher planes - all he had access to was art as a kind of soporific.
Thought begins where hyperborean desire stops working. Thought rejects the illusions of immediacy and reaches ecstasy in the apprehension of a higher mode of desire - transcendental desire, or even ololonic desire - that is attuned to true reality. In some ways it hardly matters what thesis about true reality is arrived at, so long as one rises above the hyperborean. Yet in another way it does matter. It is worth attempting to catalogue the different possible attitudes that can be taken regarding the supra-sensible true reality. I can think of five basic possible theses: stoicism, tychism, skepticism, heathenism and theism.
For the stoic, true reality is completely determined. It is an illusion to think that I am able to change the outcome of my own situation, let alone that of the world around me. Beatitude comes from a deep apprehension of this fact, leading to acceptance, which creates a certain freedom. The stoic is liberated from their own emotions and confused wishes and thoughts by a gnosis of amor fati. Marcus Aurelius and Spinoza present examples of this thesis.
For the tychist, true reality is absolute chaos. Nothing is determined - not social laws that I am told to obey, and not even apparently iron-clad laws of nature. Tychist gnosis merges with an abyss of radical freedom in the face of pure contingency. Sartre and Meillassioux present examples of this position. While arguments can be made about whether there is really any distinction between absolute determinism and absolute chaos (if there’s nothing I can do to make a dent in either, so to speak), tychism at least foregrounds that a real radical shift is possible the world; the comfort that it takes is not in merging with what’s going to happen anyway (like the stoic) but in a sort of suspended hopeful terror.
The skeptic professes radical nonknowledge: I do not and cannot know the nature of true reality - no amount of deliberation will provide me with the information I need to connect my actions to any kind outcome they intend. Skeptical gnosis frees the skeptic from the desire to know, and if one protects one’s self from the decadent tendency to ontologize logic and create a demi-in-itself out of human history, one can make room for faith or for some kind of nondursive quasi-knowledge. Kant and Bataille approach this thought in (very) different ways.
The theist claims to apprehend God's will and the power to merge with it. This gnosis entails the attunement to God's command in the name of an eschatological destiny. Duns Scotus and Mulla Sadra could be examples here.
The heathen apprehends a will, not of a God, but of nature or matter. Heathen gnosis entails merging with an acephalic creative force beyond representation and riding it as a creative wave, not knowing where it will arrive (perhaps at destruction). Lao Tzu and Deleuze point to this attitude.
There is some truth in each of these theses, and each also has its limits. One task for Transcendental Qabala is to propose an ascetic horizon that orders these insights correctly and makes a choice about which to privilege. Each is a path to transcendental freedom, but in fundamental ways they are not compatible.
Something is born as a result of ascesis. Thought operates on the mind itself, teaching it to renounce finite, reflected, exterior energy sources and to instead to attach itself an immanent, internal and infinite one. From there the mind gains concrete autonomy, a kind of fire appears.
Ascesis has nothing to do with facts. It is a mode of awareness brought about by certain practices and producing a certain type of conduct. Among modes of knowledge it is under-appreciated in modern times, and it important to take it seriously and distinguish it from science, art, and politics and to assert that it is, at least in a certain sense, more important than any of these. But it is just as important to underscore its limits and dangers. If it goes too far, it becomes demonic because it loses its capacity to doubt, which is the essence of humanity. Ascesis must fail in order to work. If it works, it fails.
Ascesis is the primary cardinal. This means that the primary task of thought is the intensification and enhancement of life. The other three cardinals are necessary only because ascesis cannot do its job without them. Pure ascesis leaves one vulnerable, weak, and perhaps overly sensitive - vulnerable to ideology, solipsistic, deluded. The pure ascetic turns away from the world and loses his or her grasp on it. The promise of transcendence that it offers - it is a lie. It can only yield New Age solipsism or fundamentalist bigotry. Thus catharsis, which is complete, potentially mathematizable knowledge of all there is to know, ideally expressed in highly compressed form, is a grappling hook cast onto the edifice of the Real World - dispelling fantasy and illusion. Although acceptance towards and engagement with the current state of the mathematics-scientific project is a key aspect catharis, there is another aspect as well - catharsis also represents a deep, existential and affective knowing of the horror of present reality (e.g. the refugee crisis). In both cases, the knowledge attained is objective. Given that catharsis is obviously not attainable in perfect form, Fervor follows: the creative moment in thought, the iconoclastic urge to consolidate and synthesize in a new way. Here is the "eternal return" aspect of thought in Deleuze's sense of the term. It is difficult to accept the thesis that pure being really, actually, is becoming - perhaps it is more difficult to endorse an ethics of becoming in 2017 than it might have been in 1968 - nevertheless affirmation of becoming finds its place in Transcendental Qabala as its third cardinal. Finally Majesty finds its place as the interface between thought and the world - expression in poetic form, engagement with pre-existing forms of thought and life - the skin of thought, its promotion and expression. It is at this stage that the Artist is produced, HAELEGEN.
Ascesis does not require external verification. One who has acquired the truth of ascesis laughs at all skepticism. For ascesis there is no doubt. Ascesis authorizes, and it also deflates all imperatives. Is ascesis the highest truth? From its own perspective, it certainly is. But it cannot erase its cognitive and neurological coordinates. Ascesis is a habit and a state. It may very well know the absolute, tap into the élan vital, be the very object that it intuits and participate in God's creation of the world. Nevertheless, it is only one of four modes of truth
In my view, the spontaneity beyond reason that the mystics endorse is best defined in terms of systemic harmony or integration at various levels (neural, biological, social), and the work of Dan Siegel provides useful concepts for outlining how this harmony can be measured. According to Siegel, the mind has nine different parameters pertaining to integration: consciousness, vertical coherence (between the reptilian brain and the cortex), bilateral coherence (between the two lobes), memory (between representational and non-representational memory traces), autobiographical narrative, state (a higher impersonal awareness of the different states of consciousness one typically passes between and an awareness of their ipseity), interpersonal resonance, temporal coherence, transpirational resonance (attention to the outside, missions, quests, the flow of God’s will). What these all share in common is that each, at a different level, involves productive, transformative communication between clearly differentiated elements - whether at the level of cognition, the brain, phenomenal consciousness, or society. The result of a given mind existing at a high level on each of these parameters (this is again Siegel’s formulation) is an optimal mode of functioning involving flexibility, adaptation, coherence, cohesion, energy and stability (FACES), a healthy pattern of development and learning that can be modeled mathematically. There is thus some kind of metaphysical principle at play involving sharply differentiated elements (as opposed to a sort of vague quasi-differentiation) that resound in a circuit which, by its very function of putting them in conversation, sustains their differentiation. This pattern of functioning is simultaneously static and directional: learning, creation and an increase in integration are inevitable if a steady state of integration is maintained. This is practical reason at its finest - and out to be considered thoroughly before any thought is given to the acquisition of scientific knowledge, artistic creation or politics.
Ascesis can be seen as the highest form of truth or as virtually no truth at all. For myself, I can say that I have no idea which of these it is. The highest knowledge is not known piecemeal. It is not discovered by means of experimentation or any sort of induction, deduction or abduction. Ascesis is an experience of direct awareness brought about by a kind of training, a re-wiring. It seems that Plato had great difficulty with the choice of either thinking Ascesis and Catharsis together or separating them. To know, to really know, to get it - it is a joy beyond joy. A sorrow-joy that is also an all-seeing blindness. It doesn't require any content. If there's a ladder needed to get to the truth-cloud of Ascesis, it can surely be kicked down. It is seemingly obvious to us today that this kind of knowledge has practically nothing to do with the type of knowledge promised by a scientific-cosmological theory of everything, or any quantity of intellectual knowledge, but perhaps it is important to reconsider. Plato wanted knowledge and virtue to be the same, and for them to both amount to blessedness. We can say definitively that, according to the coordinates of the present, this is not so - and yet the question remains: shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t self-realization ultimately have a connection to instrumental knowledge, and to technical coordination in society?
The reason that Transcendental Qabala is necessary is that blessedness-knowledge has to be grounded. If it is couched in religion - whether the creed of a Christian denomination, the gentle exhortations of a yoga instructor or whatever - it simply is not grounded. Catharsis, the second Cardinal, drives research into the nature of ultimate reality - by means of all the tools modernity has to offer. Ascesis, the first Cardinal, drives research into the meaning of blessedness, which requires spiritual techniques and experience. But these two must be put into productive resonance somehow. I’d go as far as saying the question of their resonance is perhaps the philosophical question of the 21st century.