Onward! From Minimal to Maximal Self

Photo by Brad Barmore https://unsplash.com/photos/iLK1W79UdcU

That humans are primarily driven by self-interest is an eternal axiom, but what is the self and what is its interest?  As we agonize over the harm caused by people’s pursuit of wealth and status, let’s take a moment to reflect on these questions.  What if we were to find that people’s individual self-interest is identical to the interest of all humans as well as that of the whole world?  Readers of this article probably already believe that their individual self-interest consists in living in a just society on an environmentally thriving planet.  Our challenge is convince everyone else that this is also true for them.  Just as we define healthy and unhealthy states for our bodies, it stands to reason that there are analogous conditions for our selves that either minimize or maximize them.  This is not an unfamiliar notion: we all at times feel diminished or elevated, and my article explores these states, starting with Christopher Lasch’s 1984 study The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times.  It then proceeds to review some representations of full, maximal lives or selves in works by James Baldwin, Henry Miller, bell hooks and Wendell Berry.  Adding some further philosophical and spiritual considerations yields a conception of the maximizing self which humans by nature aspire to and that consists of vigorously acting in all of their capacities to achieve the ecological civilization. 

Exhibit A of the minimal self is for Lasch those victims of the Holocaust who were paralyzed by fear and therefore rendered unable to responsibly act.  Moving beyond this phenomenon he reviews several ways in which people’s selves were minimized in his time that include fear of nuclear war and environmental devastation, lack of autonomy in work and domination by media, especially visual forms that replaces the world of things with images.  His work belongs to the tradition of analyzing the impact of modern life on the self that has distinguished a variety of aspects: Oscar Wilde said, “Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” According to Jean Baudrillard people’s identities consist in the status significations of their consumer choices; Kenneth Gergen claims that we are bundles of many selves while some Eastern spiritualities maintain that there are no selves at all anywhere.

A more common sense view is expressed by James Baldwin, who said that Blacks want to be recognized as men, that is, human beings, adding that as whites diminish Blacks, they diminish themselves.  His writing is a passionate effusion of his self, his own and collective histories, in all of which places also figure.  The factor of place in a self is highlighted by Henry Miller’s portrayal of a Greek man in The Colossus of Maroussi, of whom he wrote, “A more human individual than Katsimbalis I have never met.”*  He was of the kind that “…come to you brimming over and they fill you to overflowing…When I think of Katsimbalis bending over to pick a flower from the bare soil of Attica the whole Greek world, past, present and future rises before me…The Greek earth opens before me like the Book of Revelation.” 

In Belonging: A Culture of Place bell hooks describes the maximal self as embedded in an ecosystem of family, community, place and traditional culture.  Her fellow rural Kentuckian Wendell Berry expands this idea in The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, asserting that wholeness, which he considers to be true freedom, consists in the life of the small, self-sufficient farmer.  For him dependence on others to do one’s own work, industrial capitalism and government is slavery which, as it diminishes the people performing these functions also diminishes one’s self.   

Combining these authors’ conceptions of the self gives us an ideal to which we can assent: the self is a vigorous individual human life which is also a part of its history and the place it inhabits.  Further, it is an organic part of so many social and nonhuman natural wholes – a family, community, polity, by nature an ecosystem and finally the biosphere.  All these are so many diverse identities indivisibly united in an individual, and the maximal life involves functioning in them all to achieve the well-being of one’s individual and collective lives. 

A person’s individual life is a particular configuration of the universal life, and one of its essential functions is to temporally and spatially extend.  Thus it perpetuates its existence into the future and physically reaches out to things around it with which it becomes functionally conjoined.  Those objects do the same, initially in their sensible capacities.  Thus, as I first see the apple and am conjoined with it in consciousness, I reach out, touch it to be physically conjoined with it, and finally eat it for a nutritional conjunction.  While I act, so does the apple by presenting its sensible qualities to me, then nourishing my body.  As it serves me, ultimately I also serve it by planting its seeds.  All interactions between things are of this nature, forming conjunctions in which each thing is extended into the other and which serve or not the natures of one or both.  In my example there is mutual benefit, while if I bump my head on the tree it remains as it was and my head is injured.  The maximizing self seeks mutually beneficial relationships with other things, and multiple benefits from each one.  Thus, as I plant and nurture the tree then harvest the apples, it provides the fruit, shade, flowers for pollinators and many more indirect benefits for me.  My varied relationships with the tree are so many functional conjunctions of its life and mine, and these all enhance and enlarge my life.  Conversely, harming or neglecting the tree diminishes my life to the same extent. 

What I have just stated is the basic wisdom of regenerative agriculture and ultimately ecology which I now wish to extend to human relationships.  James Baldwin’s observation about racism is a universal truth: as we diminish other lives, we diminish our own, and as we enhance others, we enhance our own.  Just as in a regenerative spirit we approach nonhuman objects for manifold mutual benefit, so we must approach other people as human beings for the maximization of all of our lives.  For, as Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better,” and conversely, as John Donne wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”    

Living in fear and concentrating on personal survival is the extreme of self-minimization.  Functioning as a unit of human capital in the global neoliberal political economy that oppresses all of humanity and devastates the environment is also self-minimizing and ultimately self-destructive.  Humans have the multiple natures that I have listed along with a material and spiritual nature.  Fully living means actively functioning in all of these identities, and at this time we are urgently being called to do precisely that.  It is no sacrifice, as being fully human, belonging, wholeness and maximizing our selves is what we truly desire.    

Our life is extending effusive impulsion which continually reaches out to surrounding things  and persons to serve our individual interests and, as far as possible, theirs as well.  All the wonderful life on earth is not a constant paradise for each part but rather innumerable cycles of coming to be and passing away, however real degradation does exist, principally as the consequence of bad human judgement.  Therefore while we want to live exuberantly and in all of our identities, we must use good judgment to coordinate all our functions for total maximum benefit. 

By acting in our natures as rational and political animals we may serve all the interests of our manifold selves.  Maximizing our selves therefore means acting in all of our capacities, making our identity as citizens primary, ideally in local participatory democracy and robust representative democracy in more comprehensive jurisdictions.  Acting together as citizens everyone serves to maximize each other’s selves along with the wellbeing of all human and nonhuman entities, and such collective action is exactly what is needed at this crucial moment in history in order to avert radical minimization of all our selves and life itself.

Fully living is not only what we by nature desire, it is also what we are fundamentally driven to do – at once maximizing our selves and the rest of life, while it in turn does the same for us.  Failing to do this mimimizes our selves and all else, so live!

This article is a digest of my longer essay From Minimal to Maximal Self at From Minimal to Maximal Self  

* Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, (New York: New Directions, 1941), 238.

Ibid, 240-241.   

From Minimal to Maximal Self

Free ebook at From Minimal to Maximal Self

Photo by Chris Linnett



       The Minimal Self            

        Some Models for the Maximal Self     



        The Maximizing Self   



As crises in the world multiply people are receiving the contradictory messages that you’re on your own (YOYO) and that we are all inextricably caught in the single material and ideological web of the global political economy.  So they’re faced with the questions of how can they escape the system and its downfall while also overcoming their isolation, which comes down to, what can they do?  Answering this question requires an understanding of human agency which in turn depends on the definition of the self.  Our current situation tells us both that we are dissolved in the whole, having no distinct self at all, and that we are absolutely independent free agents of self-determination.  To resolve this contradiction and move forward we need to first find out what we are and then not just what we can do, but more importantly, what we should do.  Over the ages people have held a variety of conceptions of what the self is both in terms of quality and quantity, thus, substituting “soul” for “self” we have the terms “magnanimous” and “pusillanimous.”  While people generally fancy themselves as being great rather than small in spirit, sociologist Christopher Lasch explored how false this belief is for most people in his 1984 book The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times.1  He identified several cultural factors that reduce people’s characters to minimal selves, thereby continuing a tradition in his discipline that went back decades.  In this essay I review various interpretations of the phenomenon then turn to some works expressing and portraying expanded selves which were written precisely to resist and escape the conditions and forces that minimize the self.  I then offer a view of the maximal self derived from the systematic philosophy presented in my Being Alive: A Guide for Human Action2 and augmented here with a new account of spirituality.  As I define the maximal self I also explain that it is the natural fulfillment of human life, which is to vigorously act in maximal service to its self and the world to bring about the well-being of both.               

The Minimal Self

In The Minimal Self  Lasch  explores how, in many ways individual human agency and identity are reduced, sometimes even obliterated, in modern life, with the nadir of minimization  represented by the condition of the most restrained victims of the Holocaust.  He cites Bruno Bettelheim’s observation that “systematic terror can force men and women to ‘live, like children, only in the immediate present.’”3  Yet he faults that psychologist for failing to account for “why ‘millions walked quietly, without resistance, to their death,’ why ‘so few of the millions of prisoners died like men.”4  A lively debate on this subject was going on at the time Lasch wrote, and it centered around survival as a core human value, motivation and strategy.  One social scientist, Des Pres, claimed, “The survivor’s ‘recalcitrance’ – his refusal to give in to despair or to accept the role of a helpless victim of circumstance – reaffirms the ‘bio-social roots of human existence,’ a will of ‘life itself.’”5  Another researcher, Neusner, objected, saying

It is the survivors who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment…they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live.6

In popular culture Des Pres’ position triumphed, as seen in the incredible 1982 success of the song “Eye of the Tiger” by the band Survivor.  Lasch traced the survivalist mentality of the time  principally to threats of nuclear war and environmental destruction, and while these justifiably inspire fear, he found people further minimizing themselves by seeking subsistence livings far off the grid and by ignoring or denying the dangers.  By the first means people radically limited their participation in society and the world, while practicing the latter they similarly closed their minds to crucial realities.

Since the eighties mainstream culture has proceeded largely with business as usual, the way, Lasch reminds us, of Anne Frank’s family which, for Bettelheim was “‘neither a good way to live, nor the way to survive.’  ‘Extreme privatization’ failed in the face of adversity.  ‘Even all Mr. Frank’s love did not keep [his family] alive.’”7  Expanding that psychologist’s thoughts, Lasch continued

On the other hand, those who managed to escape from Europe or to survive the concentration camps understood that ‘when a world goes to pieces, when inhumanity reigns supreme, man cannot go on with business as usual.’ They understood, moreover, that even death is preferable to the passivity with which so many victims of Nazism allowed themselves to be treated as ‘units in a system.’ The concentration camps could not deprive courageous men and women of the freedom to die defiantly, ‘to decide how one wishes to think and feel about the conditions of one’s life.’8  

Although several elements of the stress suffered by Holocaust victims contributed to their psychic shrinkage, there is one in particular that we can relate to because it remains ubiquitous.  This is the fear that inhibits action, that makes people freeze like rabbits when they sense danger.  There are diverse additional aspects of business as usual that serve to minimize the self, and I will address them shortly.  For the present, though, I want to mention a few other notable works that deal specifically with the factors of fear and anxiety.    

Lasch was one of many analysts who recognized the major cultural shift that commenced with the election of President Ronald Reagan.  Another was Barbara Ehrenreich whose 1989 Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class9traced the movement of baby boomers from being 1960s-style counter culturalists to a herd of Babbitts.  Economic turmoil in the 1970s that included the OPEC oil crisis, stagflation and the Volker shock was a reality check for young adults who had grown up taking their economic security for granted during the post-World War II boom.  Now they were learning that middle class status is not inherited, but must be won and continually preserved by each individual in what had become the neoliberal YOYO economy.  With the wholesale off-shoring of industries, leveraged buyouts and more, workers up and down the food chain became disposable.  This was the antithesis of the life-long secure careers that their parents had enjoyed and was therefore traumatic, mildly comparable to the Holocaust victims’ ordeal and triggering a proportionate response.  The trend has continued unabated, as not only is the job security of the 1960s gone forever, but people today frequently move about between different kinds of work, with technology and businesses undergoing constant transformation.  Now it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place and avoid falling behind, falling down and out of the middle class with its illusion of security.  Fear of downward mobility has now spread to the upper middle class, as noted by New York Times writer Ross Douthat in a January, 2023 article.10  

Ehrenreich’s book continued a tradition of social scientists analyzing the middle class and its frailties.   One classic, The Lonely Crowd,11 published in 1952 by David Riesmann, described the self-minimizing “other-directed personality” of people who take their cues for acting from others around them in order to gain their approval.  Like some of Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s characters, they “live their lives outside of themselves.”  As they succeed in winning others’ acceptance, the researchers found that these people were also afflicted with anxiety.   A few years earlier Erich Fromm had defined a related characteristic, naming it the “marketing personality” of those who engage in constant self-promotion.12  

Returning to The Minimal Self,  Lasch identifies a number of additional ways in which the self is minimized in current society, one of which is industrialization that has destroyed the craftsman model of production.  The most serious consequence of this mode of production today is the concentration of management in the hands of a small minority of administrators, technicians and now owners as monopolization grows.  Consumption, the other side of the production coin, is meanwhile similarly managed by the marketing-media complex.  Organizational psychologists and advertisers alike manipulate people, while their discontent is treated by therapists.  Politics has the same character – controlling elites offer marginally-differentiated consumer choices, while the public opinion industry shapes rather than records popular sentiments.  For its part the education industry serves to program and sort people into their roles in the total system where people see themselves rather as helpless victims.  Freedom in the system is, as Milton Friedman insisted,13 the freedom to choose between a variety of jobs and products, while the nature of the system itself is non-negotiable: “There Is No Alternative.”  Defenders of the system assert that it does furnish affluence for some and the opportunity to attain it for all plus major technological benefits such as those of the latest medicine.  We do very much value the latter, but as Lasch points out, we are now absolutely dependent on the modern medical system which at least in America has become a hospital-pharmaceutical-insurance juggernaut.  Indeed, we depend on the total financial-corporate-government system for virtually everything, and this radically reduces our autonomy. 

The fundamental underlying assumption of the whole system is neoliberalism’s definition of the self, according to which it is a unit in a total free market where it competes with all the other units, a bundle of human capital constituted by all of its material assets, experience and skills and finally an agent of rational choice, necessarily picking the options most economically advantageous to itself.  Its violation of the rule that a definition must not include the term it defines reveals that the neoliberal self has no original character but is rather an empty receptacle into and out of which qualities enter and exit.  In any case people are entrepreneurs and therefore marketers of themselves in all circumstances of their lives.

In recent decades sociologists such as Lasch and Zygmunt Bauman14 have focused on people’s transient identities in consumer culture in contrast with earlier commentators who examined the more enduring ones of their times.  Erving Goffman15 studied the multiple roles that were either imposed upon or adopted by people, while Frankfurt School psychologist Karen Horney traced our inner conflicts to “ideal types” which were our standard model visions of ourselves.16  Oscar Wilde quipped, “Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”  Over a hundred years have passed since Babbitt extolled “the standard American man,”17 yet assertions of individual identity notwithstanding, standardization still figures significantly in the conceptions we have of our own and other people’s selves. 

Most discussion of the self assumes that there is ultimately only one for each person, although its character may not be constant.  This is not the only view, as some hold that we all have many selves, and others maintain that there are no selves anywhere.  While Eastern spirituality tends toward the latter position the opposite follows from David Gergen’s notion of the “saturated self.”  As we interact with a great number of other individuals in different situations, these varied relationships entail so many versions of our selves, making our single self merely the bundle of all these disparate selves.18  This in fact is what Riesmann’s other-directed personality had become by the final decade of the twentieth century.  Yet with the advance of information technology the self has subsequently come to be represented as a node in a network, while, going further, some thinkers now claim that the self is no thing at all but is constituted entirely by relations.  

Not only do individuals seem to be colonized, so to speak, by other people, Jean Baudrillard has described how their identities are defined by consumer objects.19  In our consumer culture these things are above all objects of choice among a range of items located along a spectrum of social status created by advertising.  The object is used, eaten and so forth as what it is, but it is consumed as a sign of status that tells the consumer who they are.  In his book The System of Objects he refers to the novel Things: A Story of the Sixties by George Perec20 which describes a yuppie couple, Jerome and Sylvie, whose life is entirely defined by the status signification of the objects and people around them.  Eventually burning out on this mode of existence they move to a village in Algeria that had not yet been invaded by global capitalism’s glut of stuff.  In this fairly subsistence economy of a quite homogenous community people’s needs were satisfied by local producers and vendors all providing virtually the same basic items.  Lacking the status differentiation conferred upon them by advertising, these things were not consumer objects, but rather bare naked products grown and processed for people to eat and use.  There the couple was bored stiff, so they returned to their old life in the fast lane among their things and friends in Paris. 

As media defines the status signification of consumer objects it is itself a species of consumer object that had the greatest impact in Lasch’s time with images.  He says the consumer knows the world “largely through insubstantial images and symbols that seem to refer not so much to a palpable, solid and durable reality as to his inner psychic life, itself experienced not as an abiding sense of self but as reflections glimpsed in the mirror of his surroundings.”21

While Baudrillard’s consumer objects have a mass psychological rather than material nature, they are attached to physical things which have a degree of permanence in people’s lives, and this is why Perec opens the novel with a detailed description of the décor, furnishings and ornaments in Jerome’s and Sylvie’s home.  Bemoaning the triumph of images, Lasch cites Hannah Arendt’s observation “…the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that….men, their everchanging nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.”22

Now, as in the second decade of the twenty-first century our world has become overloaded with stuff, media has moved beyond print, TV and film, and the marketing industry pitches a world of virtual consumer objects.  The intangible and ephemeral nature of the items of information technology gives the selves of today’s consumer culture an even more insubstantial character which is compounded by extraordinary physical and social mobility. Formerly describing vertical movement, this last term now mostly refers to lateral movement not only for periods of time, but more or less all the time as we surf through virtual contacts with individuals and groups who still continue to define our status in the system of consumer objects.  The staggering quantity, variety and pace of virtual consumer objects in our lives makes them an ever-changing cacophony of status signals.             

Through advertising the status signification of objects becomes both common knowledge and practice, which means that people’s consumption of consumer objects must be displayed in order for that signification to register with others.  While people’s consumption of many virtual objects is publicly displayed, as with social media posts, much is not.  Reading certain online journals defines people as having the status associated with them, but no one else may know it.  They may acquire vast information about the world but ultimately be the antithesis of those who live their life outside of themselves, being rather, as consumers of virtual information, ones who live their lives inside of themselves.  This is the condition of a growing number of people.  It may also be noted that as the network nature of human relations multiplies and complicates the status significations of virtual contacts it causes confusion and reinforces people’s habit of communicating in a depersonalized manner that further minimizes their selves.

Apart from the status aspect, the volume and pace of electronic communication tends to render the self less of a substantive node and more of a simple point of exchange in a vast and highly complex network.  A recent New York Times article highlighted the practice of communicating on multiple platforms simultaneously in workplaces.23  Its quality recalls Bauman’s earlier observation that the primary purpose of ceaseless social text exchanges is not to communicate information, but to maintain contact.24  Much Facebook activity consists of sharing media content that literally does nothing but identify the person doing the posting with that content – a digital version of the behavior Henry Miller described with the comment, “We do not talk – we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.”25 

I have reviewed a variety of conceptions of the self and how it is minimized – from the paralysis of will caused by fear to external control and validation, standardization, identification with ideal types, being lost in a crowd of selves, dissolving into the One, stretched in many directions like an amoeba, being a formless agent defined by choices in the total capitalist market world, as a reflection of material and virtual consumer objects and finally as an unextended point in a network.  These are some of the interpretations of the self supplied by experts over the past several generations and furnish a variety of mirrors in which readers can recognize aspects of themselves.  At the same time there are literary treatments of the self that describe it much more broadly.  I now turn to considering some such portrayals presented in works by James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Wendell Berry and bell hooks.   

Some Models for the Maximal Self

In Nobody Knows My Name26 Baldwin describes the diminished self of the Black American in the past and in his own time, laying bare the necessarily correlated reduction of the white self.  The slave, he says, is not regarded as a man or a human being but rather as a creature inferior to white folks and whose life is accordingly limited.  This Black identity largely persisted following emancipation, and Baldwin found it to have been adopted by many Blacks who thereby minimized themselves.  As a matter of history, once Blacks were no longer slaves, that is, property and forced labor, they continued to figure in the American status hierarchy as its floor, above which all whites existed.  So as Black selves were defined as dead last, white selves were defined as in some degree better and higher ranking.  These designations, Baldwin says, also diminish whites, identifying them in terms of status and as deniers of the dignity of Blacks.        

Black males, he asserts, want to be recognized as men, and Blacks in general want to be recognized as human beings.  He doesn’t define these terms, assuming that readers understand them, but his writing, in which he pulls no punches, conveys so many ways in which Blacks and himself in particular were and continue to be treated as less than full-fledged men and human beings.  The title of his essay speaks volumes, and he relates in it and other works how he was treated sometimes as rather an animal or as an exceptional Black.  He also describes being a curiosity while he once lived in a snowy Swiss village.  As times have changed Blacks are no longer consistently treated as invisible or worse, but structural racism remains, and overall, people of color, especially Blacks, suffer the most.  At the same time, with persistent misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, winner-take-all celebrity culture, branded identity groups, cancel culture and the neoliberal war of all against all, it’s not unusual for people of all kinds to at times feel invisible, marginalized or that nobody knows their name.

This essay has explored different definitions of the self, treating it as a category.  Baldwin supplies something of a generic definition, but his writing is mostly an expression, a passionate effusion of his own self, providing a specific example for that definition.  He writes as a man, a human being and one with an individual and collective history which enters into and forcefully drives his ongoing activity.  He said, “You write in order to change the world,” and with this noble purpose his past continues into his present through the strokes on his typewriter.  As time is such a factor, so is space, or, more exactly, place.  At every moment of his life he was embedded in a place that conditioned it at that moment and for all later time, as his presence conversely conditioned the history of the place.  His early life was bound up with his home and Harlem, while later in Europe his connections with places were looser, allowing him to view them as well as America with some detachment.  As with time, these places entered into and impelled his writing.    

Baldwin’s identity was particularly affected by history, for his was, as expressed in the title of a book by Walter Moseley, a “life out of context.”27  Alternatively, some other selves are primarily conditioned by their places, an example of which is the Greek man Katsimbalis described by Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi.  He writes 

During the time I knew him Katsimbalis’ life was relatively quiet and unadventurous.  But the most trivial incident, if it happened to Katsimbalis, had a way of blossoming into a great event.  It might be nothing more than that he had picked a flower by the roadside on his way home.  But when he had done with the story that flower, humble though it might be, would become the most wonderful flower that ever a man had picked.  That flower would remain in the memory of the listener as that flower which Katsimbalis had picked; it would become unique, not because there was anything in the least extraordinary about it, but because Katsimbalis had immortalized it by noticing it, because he had put into that flower all that  he thought and felt about flowers, which is like saying – a universe.28

Continuing, he says, “A more human individual than Katsimbalis I have never met.”29  He was of the kind that “…come to you brimming over and they fill you to overflowing.  They ask nothing of you except that you participate in their superabundant joy of living.”30  Visiting Greece Miller came to deeply love that country which was for him embodied in his friend, and he wrote, “When I think of Katsimbalis bending over to pick a flower from the bare soil of Attica the whole Greek world, past, present and future rises before me…The Greek earth opens before me like the Book of Revelation.”31  People’s bonds with their places are related in countless stories, from the Hebrews and Israel to Gone with the Wind, but the portrayal of Katsimbalis is distinctive in recognizing his exceptionally full life as a fervent effusion of the total, indivisible and historically continuous life of his country.

Today it’s hard to imagine such integrated existence, as pre-World War II Greece and most other comparable places are indeed gone with the wind.  Consequently in our pulverized, vaporized, increasingly lifeless social and material world, people especially seek belonging, commonly drawn to branded identity groups, as meanwhile the regeneration movement aims to unite people with the earth in particular communities.  While these current efforts, like those described by sociologists, are still rather one-dimensional, a fuller account of belonging is provided by bell hooks in her book Belonging: A Culture of Place.32

Drawing on her upbringing in Kentucky she describes belonging as being part of a whole fabric consisting of the natural environment, its people, their artifacts and practices.  This fabric, moreover, has a temporal dimension with the people’s history and the traditional character of their activities that make their time somewhat cyclical rather than strictly linear.  She was one of six daughters in a Black family making a fairly subsistence living on a backwoods farm.  With relatives nearby their life was quite socially and materially self-sufficient but not confined, as the countryside was open for hunting, fishing and roaming.  So, rather like Katsimbalis, her life was an effusion of a total place, except that unlike his place – a country – hooks’ place was an island in the racist South, a haven in a hostile world.  When the family moved into a town her idyllic life ended and became, with the exception of her extended family relations, rather like Baldwin’s and Moseley’s – out of context, fearful and minimized. 

While Miller identifies Katsimbalis with his country and its full history, hooks focuses on the immediate place to which she belonged, the family’s past and the way they lived day-to-day as an effusion of that place and continuation of their history.  The elders told marvelous stories of the past, recreated it as they grew and prepared their food and ingeniously preserved it in their quilt-making.  This was a fine craft in which women incorporated pieces of fabric from outgrown or worn-out clothes into the intricate patterns of covers that provided comfort for the family as they slept.  They lived and breathed in these creations, while the sewing of the quilts was akin to the Greek’s and the elders’ production of stories. 

Emphasizing belonging, hooks provides several particular illustrations of it without identifying what they have in common or what they all add up to.  That is wholeness – the family was a social whole that lived a whole history in whole place, forming a total collective whole life.  This wholeness that she eulogizes is explicitly explored by Wendell Berry in his latest book, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice,33which finds him again wrestling with the conflict between his love for his Southern agrarian home and racism in America.  As a privileged white man his fairly bucolic Kentucky life has continued for nearly a century, giving him insight into the culture of the Confederacy.  While that essentially consisted of belonging to the land, family and tradition, he insists that genuine belonging requires personally working the land and caring for the family.  Slavery, therefore, corrupted these otherwise worthy values, and he relates that they were most truly manifested by slaves themselves and, following emancipation, small black farmers.  The biggest post-Civil War mistakes in American history have been, in his view, failing to secure small farm ownership for Blacks and whites alike and shifting to the big business model for agriculture and an overall industrial economy.  Under slavery, it was, as Hegel asserted, really the masters who were dependent on the slaves, and Berry sees Americans today as almost all wage slaves dependent on global corporate masters, technology and a multitude of migrant farm laborers, foreign sweatshop factory workers and service employees cleaning and handling waste.  

For him the fundamental need to be whole is fulfilled by agrarian life, specifically that of the small, mostly self-sufficient farmer.  This is his definition of freedom, which does require individual land ownership, and being the opposite of slavery, further requires doing one’s own work and not having others to do it for them.  The dignity of work, he insists, is destroyed by slavery of all kinds, but also by too much, too little, physically harmful, meaningless and unrewarding forms.  So while work is central to his ideal, he is clear that it must be the right kind of work. 

Still, the whole life extends to a small community of shared lives that includes mutual aid.  Like Miller and hook, he highlights the value of stories of shared experiences, the common place and heritage.  Living elders and ancestors are also vital, and he cites a story told by Ernest J. Gaines about a Black country man who pointed out the gaping hole in the fabric of his community’s belonging which was the absence of people who chose to live their whole lives there, growing old in it.34 

Although religion and ethics are included in Berry’s portrayal of agrarian life, it is hooks who conveys how they figure in her culture of belonging.  For her mother and grandparents integrity, of which courage is a part, was the supreme value, since living an honest and dignified life was the principal thing that distinguished them from white folk who were seen as infected with myriad vices.  Virtue was consistently preached, while civility toward family and Black community members was demanded and enforced.  This conduct was further bolstered by Christian faith and practice plus the spiritual unity created by these.  Communion with Jesus was a feature of some of her folks’ lives and, for some, communion with natural creation. 

Rather like Katsimbalis Berry is the voice of his place and its history, yet unlike the Greek, he has witnessed degradation of his place which continues and even escalates in the present.  He speaks of mountaintop removal, the exodus of small farmers and, beyond, the overall environmental devastation of the earth.  At no time has his place been an island paradise, and his whole life does ultimately encompass the world.  As a lifelong crusader for environmental protection and racial justice, he advocates returning to a small highly self-sufficient farm culture.  With this he assumes a particularly radical position in the decentralization and degrowth movement, for his vision could not possibly be realized for a long time to come and most likely never.

Nonetheless, Miller, hooks and Berry expand the conception of the self to embrace the universe, while Baldwin emphasizes its inclusion of history, with all of them giving voice to their respective sources.  Doing this they exemplify particularly rich, vibrant and whole selves akin to that of Katsimbalis.  They are fairly maximal selves, the pure type of which may now be generally described.   

The maximal self, which is the standard by which all selves are to be measured, is, as Baldwin and Miller maintain, eminently human, fully actualizing their human nature by respecting the humanity of others, and further, for Miller, brimming over and filling them to overflowing.  Their words and actions remain in the memory of others, becoming parts of those persons’ histories, which are parts of their selves.  As a human life, it embodies its ongoing individual and collective history while also being indivisibly united with its place, the contents of which condition its actions in a cumulative fashion as that life continues over time.  Finally, as Berry and hooks affirm, the whole self includes a spiritual dimension.  

The four authors are moved by desire to maximize their own lives by sharing their ideals in writing – for human dignity, joy, belonging and ecological living.  Looking at their different representations of self-actualization we find that the truly maximal self embraces them all, and as they desired to live according to their own visions, we desire a life that combines them all, in fact even more.  So  we come to the question of how do we go about fulfilling this desire to truly maximize our own lives?  

Everything is broken, so we need to radically change the whole system, and this is why hooks and Berry seek to put the pieces together and achieve wholeness.  In doing this they identify parts and dimensions of the whole, but provide limited guidance as to how each person can and should go about creating it.  Although the task is herculean, it is necessary and urgent, so in what follows I present the new worldview that serves the purpose and which I laid out in Being Alive: A Guide for Human Action.  As that work considered only the natural world and abstained from any discussion of spirituality, I remedy the omission in this essay.


On the most common-sense level the self is a particular human body, the organic unity of all of its parts that constitutes a living whole.  In addition, by nature it is a part of a series of concentric and intersecting larger living wholes – a family, a community, an ecosystem, so many organic and inorganic natural systems, the biosphere and finally the whole universe.  The individual  therefore at every moment simultaneously functions in all of these capacities or identities, and this is the conception of human life in the essentialist philosophy presented in Being Alive.    

My new world view is basically ecology incorporated into Aristotle’s understanding of nature.  Unlike modern science, which is amoral, in practice often immoral, the earlier Western classical systems were known as moral philosophies, defining not only what humans are, but also what they ought to be.  Consequently they weren’t reduced to elementary particles with their fundamental attribute of inertial motion, much less arbitrarily conditioned behaviors, uniformly hollow instances of homo oeconomicus or any of the other scientific definitions that have been put forth over time.  Rather, humans were defined as whole living units possessing moral agency.  Although insofar as religion was included in philosophical thinking it also entered into this agency, Aristotle concerned himself strictly with things and processes in the natural realm.  Within this he found a highly rational order in which things exist as individuals of species which distinguish and define their natures.  He accordingly defined humans as “rational animals.”

Above all he was a biologist who observed that the lives of organisms begin in forms such as  seeds, eggs and infants then proceed to mature into adulthood.  The maturation process is goal-directed, that is, teleological, aimed not at hitting somewhere on a target but the very bull’s eye.  This fact aligns with the traditional Greek concept of arete – the excellence or perfection which was the goal or ideal for human endeavor, e.g., the perfect athletic body and the perfect sculptural representation of that body.  Therefore Aristotle declared that the human telos is a virtuous life, the development of which was not to occur in a vacuum but in a human community in which education is crucial to the proper fulfillment of human nature.  Being animals, humans also live in an environment from which they obtain food, shelter, clothing and in which they sexually reproduce to perpetuate their species.   

For Aristotle an organism’s life, which is the unity of all its functions, is its essence that is strictly contained within the physical boundaries of its body, and unlike nonliving things, they possess organic parts whose nature is to function precisely as parts and never separately.  My philosophy expands his essentialism to define larger organic units as essences, and these include human families and communities, ecosystems and the biosphere. This means that, in addition to being individual rational animals, humans are also organic parts of these larger living wholes and possess further identities as such parts. 

An individual human is the totality of all of its identities, so fully living means properly functioning in all of their capacities.  As the life of an essence consists of striving to achieve a perfect life, the functioning of their parts consists of striving to be perfect parts of a perfect whole.  So by nature humans strive to be perfect individuals and perfect members or parts of perfect families, communities, ecosystems and world. 

Of course none of these entities are or ever have been perfect, and this is due to the fact that the functions of essences inhere in material bodies which are subject to damage and destruction.  Thus minor injury to a limb impairs its function, and mortal injury to the body destroys its total function or life.  Still, in spite of their limitations and impairments, the lives of essences consist of striving for perfection. 

Although Aristotle recognized only individual essences and no collective ones, he did assert, “Man is by nature a political animal,” meaning that government is a natural feature of human co-existence in communities.  So in addition to the multiple identities I listed above, humans are by nature also citizens, that is, parts of polities which in my expanded essentialism are collective essences.  As he ranked human functions from the lowest, the vegetable, next the animal and finally the uniquely human rationality, he further declared that the supreme human function is that of the philosopher-king.  In today’s democracies the king’s functions are shared by all the citizens, so it follows that now the highest fulfillment of human nature is that of citizen. 

The purpose of an individual human is to perform all of its functions – nutrition, growth, reproduction, motion and rationality, as all their parts perform their own functions in service to the whole.  Similarly, the purpose of the family is to function as a social body within which those first three functions are primarily performed.  In their identities as family members, which people have in addition to and alongside their individual identities, they perform their family functions also in service to the whole.  These are carried on in a place – the home – so family functions include activities such as maintaining the house and producing goods for domestic consumption which further entail maintaining the means of that production, especially the natural resources.  To the extent that the family is self-sufficient, the home is a whole of which the house, property and family are parts, largely fulfilling Berry’s conditions for wholeness. 

Beyond the family the community is yet another social body within which people perform specifically community functions that serve the parts of the community and the whole, and their identity as community members is in addition to their individual and family identities.  Similarly to the family, the community exists in a place from which it obtains resources, produces and exchanges goods while maintaining the conditions for those activities.  By nature therefore the community is a whole consisting of the people and their natural place with all its resources.  For migratory peoples their large territories or seasonal sites are enduring or intermittent components of their communities’ lives. 

There are multiple community functions that members perform that relate to sociability, education, conservation, production, consumption and governance.  Although human communities are natural units, people don’t magically live together in harmony, and this goes for families as well, where natural parental authority and heritage carry some weight.  Indeed, even maintaining the health of the body requires discipline: eating right, having proper clothing and shelter, moving correctly to build strength and avoid injury, finally thinking and feeling right for mental health.  The community is a much more complex whole, and securing concord among its parts is primarily the task of government which functions to ensure and preserve public harmony or justice.  Everyone in the community participates in all of its functions, especially as citizens in its governance, which should take the form of participatory democracy.  Citizenship is a further identity alongside those of individual, family and community member and in which people serve the interests of the polity as a whole and all of its parts including themselves. 

The value of sociability in the community must not be underestimated, for at this time we see an epidemic of social isolation.  As people now seek to connect with each other economically and politically, there needs to be a social dimension to these relationships that goes beyond consuming together at bars, restaurants, and entertainment events.  There is no substitute for people visiting each other in their homes, thereby establishing unmediated personal relationships that constitute varying degrees of friendship, which was for Aristotle a distinct virtue. 

For wholeness or organic unity the community must be small, fairly self-sufficient and, in the words of David Korten, function as a subset of its local ecosystem.35  The latter extends beyond the community’ boundaries, as does the biosphere and global humanity, of which each person, family and community form parts.  These are additional identities for them, and it is primarily as citizens of higher levels of representative democracy which include the global that people serve the larger human and natural wholes and all of their parts. 

As each person is the indivisible whole of all these identities or natures they not only act to achieve and maintain the harmony within all the wholes of which they are parts, but also between these wholes and within their own manifold selves.  Doing this relies on their exercise of reason which Aristotle divided into three kinds: formal logic, practical reason and political reason, with the last two consisting of identifying the mean between too much and too little in particular decisions.  It is therefore by practicing such forms of reasoning that people individually and collectively achieve harmony and justice in their own lives and in the world. 

Things and people are driven by manifold desires to attain perfection in each of their capacities and in all of them together.  Humans are conscious of wanting their bodies to be in good condition, to act well in good families, communities, polities and world.  However, as I have stated, Aristotle observed that all natural things are subject to damage and corruption.  I have touched on this with individual bodies, and the case is analogous with human collectivities and even nonhuman ones, especially insofar as these are impacted by human activity.  While an individual may be the victim of some physical or psychological pathology that moves them to disrupt the family, community or natural environment, the more serious kind of corruption is that which is a systemic feature of the whole culture. 

Modern human culture is radically broken as a whole and in most, if not all, of its parts.  Every kind of degradation is on full display, ranging from individual physical and mental damage to family and community division, massive political corruption, war and environmental devastation.  While not the sole cause, all of it can be tied to people functioning according to the neoliberal definition of humans as radically individualized competitive agents existing in a total market-determined world.  Not only is this conception of human life one-dimensional rather than fully multi-dimensional, it is destructive of that one and all the other dimensions of human and non-human life.  Yet amid the wreckage, people’s manifold essential desires are not entirely extinguished, and they provide the seeds of our salvation.

All human identities, which consist of our various natural functions, must be restored to health, and this begins with our conscious functions.  Like the physical ones, these are diverse and multi-dimensional, however, our culture, specifically modern science, has reduced them to one-dimensional operations of a fundamentally inorganic nature occurring strictly inside our bodies.  These in turn are interpreted as highly complex systems also ultimately composed of inorganic processes and materials.  Science is another instrument that minimizes the self!   

As the modern world, and with it the modern worldview, breaks down, people are realizing that this is not the only understanding that humans have ever had of themselves, their relations with the world and their awareness of it.  Eastern philosophies and Indigenous cultures regard the world as a cosmic whole, defining humans as indivisibly connected to it and immediately conscious of that unity.  While these alternatives are gaining appeal, especially their spiritualities, about which I will have more to say later, I want to stress that they belong to particular historic ways of life whose widespread full recovery can only be in the distant future, if ever.  My thinking is in the tradition of Western civilization in which individual human dignity, democracy and rationality figure prominently, so although I accept certain valuable non-Western insights, I primarily follow and expand upon Aristotle. 

Beginning in the Enlightenment all consciousness has been interpreted as direct sense perception or some kind of reproduction of it in memory or imagination.  Alongside these forms Aristotle also recognized intuition of essences, which is awareness of what things are, their very lives.  My primary definition of the self as a living human being rests on the fact that this essence is an object of intuition and that this intuition of the human essence, along with that of every other kind of thing of which we are aware is an immediate fact of experience.  So as we saw that people’s multiple identities are sets of diverse functions, we now find that consciousness is also manifold – we both see the appearances of things and intuit their essences which are their very being, what they are.   

Sense perception and intuition are functions of human essences, and understanding them as such cuts the Gordian Knot – their substance is neither some kind of material nor mind stuff.  Rather, consciousness of something is akin to the nature of collective essences: the parts are distributed in space, but they form an organic whole that encompasses the parts.  This means that the functioning of the self extends into the space around it where it functionally conjoins with other objects, and this is evident in consciousness.  My image and the intuition of the object are over there, approximately where the physical thing is, in a three-dimensional space of consciousness at the center of which is the image of my body.  I reach out to an object in my capacity as a seeing subject and connect with its nature as a visible object, and our essences conjoin in respect to these functions, producing the image and the intuition in the space of my experience.  As the image and intuition are parts of my essence, they are likewise parts of the object’s essence: my life extends into its life which in turn extends into mine.      

The space of experience is a particular dimension of the human essence that exists in addition to the physical dimension in which the body functionally conjoins with material objects around it.  As I stand on the ground, it supports me, and we are functionally conjoined in the relationship in our capacities as standing and supporting, respectively.  All interactions display such mutuality and further reveal that things contain infinitely manifold potentiality which becomes particularly actualized in functional conjunctions with other things.  

As the physical and conscious components of essences are spatially extended, they are similarly extended in time.  The body endures, and this means that it persists over time with its past being preserved while it propagates its life into the future through continual absolute creation.  It does this as a whole in all of its identities, including as part of the whole universe, so this is to say that the whole universe with all of its parts and all the parts of those parts carries on continual absolute self-creation while preserving its total past.  The past accumulates in physical bodies, for everything they do, and everything that is done to them modifies them internally and therefore conditions their total future existence along with all the things with which they have relations going forward. 

All of life, and human life in particular, is a continual stream in which the individual and collective past conditions bodily and conscious functions.  Thus the whole life is deeply enriched by a personal past and history in contrast with the minimized life focused on now that is carried on in what Zygmunt Bauman calls “pointillist time.”36  Insofar as in a whole life its functioning as part of a habitat such as a home, community or country is prominent, those places also figure in it.  

For Aristotle an individual’s life consists of carrying on its species’ physical and mental functions, driven by desire to do so.  In my expanded version of his essentialism humans have the multiple identities that I have named, so by nature they all drive and condition one’s action.  Moreover, as these identities involve particular histories and particular places, these also contribute one’s present action.  That action therefore represents the effusion of their past and their place embodied in their full essence.   

Particular actions are driven by particular desires, that is, intentions, directed at particular external objects.  Katsimbalis intended to transmit his particular joie de vivre in his country with its and his own past to his listener Miller.  Baldwin intended to move his readers to advance justice for Blacks by relating his own and their history, acting in multiple identities which included those of individual and Black American citizen. 

Their narratives are not only the exercise of the functions of speaking and writing but also intelligence of an especially whole nature, melding a multitude of diverse objects of experience, while  hooks and Berry do the same thing in a more analytic fashion.  As we seek the whole life, which is the maximal self, we find that it requires a whole method of understanding that stands in stark contrast with those of the various sciences.  Each thing in the world is many, ultimately infinitely many things, and to achieve wholeness in our lives, it is imperative that we incorporate this truth into our thinking.  

In comparison with the whole, maximized human life that I have described most people’s lives today are radically minimized.  Rather than functioning in multiple identities to achieve harmony among people and with nature, the prevailing neoliberal ideology has them functioning primarily in one – the homo oeconomicus that is driven by the desire to advance their own self-interest against all others who are regarded as competitors.  Further, with increasing wealth consolidation, weakening of democracy and environmental crises, the pressure on individuals grows.  For the future of ourselves, humanity, democracy and the planet the trend must be reversed, and the principal means of doing this is through citizen action.  In Being Alive I outlined how this should proceed as people give priority to their highest identity, which is that of citizens.  For it is chiefly in this capacity that everyone can act to save the entire earth. 

At the same time, all our other identities play roles in this project.  Moving forward involves fixing all of our different kinds of relations and further recognizing the relations between diverse identities and dimensions of our lives.  These are not discrete but rather form something of a continuous spectrum which we must learn to properly navigate. 

The works of Baldwin, hooks and Berry illustrate this well.  Emancipation, civil rights and voting rights legislation officially secured Blacks’ status as full-fledged citizens, but, not as full-fledged human beings.  This is a core issue, and a major justification for essentialist epistemology, since all the forms of collective human life depend for their viability on acknowledging the humanity of all of their members.  Because the individual being of every person is a human being, families, communities and polities are specifically human families, communities and polities.  With respect to nature, people relate to it in a specifically human manner, which is by no means domination of it. 

Insofar as people’s awareness of each other consists of intuitions of their individual human essences, they are not only immediately aware of their very lives, but also that they are literally conjoined in the intuition.  Attention solely to visual images of people is also functional conjunction, but it is directed only at their appearance and not their essence.  Likewise, seeing and even intuiting limited, especially instrumental, aspects of people limits the relationship, which becomes almost entirely one-sided when one projects imaginary identities onto them.

Once we are aware that other people are living human beings and that our lives are conjoined, if only in our images and intuitions, we drift into awareness of them as members of families, parts of the community that includes its natural resources and citizens.  We find that these multiple identities are not strictly demarcated but form a continuous spectrum, as we see, for example, that what an individual does has bearing on their family, while the community and the polity also impact it.  This reality is presently gaining attention with the shortage of child care service caused by the pandemic and the growing debate over the roles of parents and government in education.  Meanwhile, governance and citizenship have both formal and informal components, with the former being specifically official governmental proceedings, while the latter reach into the other realms of our lives including the social.  This last fact is increasingly critical for us to recognize in this time of intense polarization when interacting solely on the political level fails, but relating to people as fellow individual humans succeeds in achieving at least some agreement.  This is demonstrated by Amanda Cahill’s method of conducting conversations between opponents on public issues which emphasizes individual concerns and precludes their picking sides.37  In one case some Australian coal miners were brought to accept the fact of climate change and to join a community gardening project.  Of course personal attitudes must be translated into civic terms for the purpose of more effective action, and this remains a major challenge in our time.

As governments fail to remedy our urgent problems people are increasingly turning to self-help such as Berry’s individual self-sufficiency and any number of community-based projects.  Indeed, government is one of the things that Berry says that we should end our dependence on, and Tim Hollo’s “living democracy”38 is separate from the state, as are The Alternative’s citizen action networks.  Meanwhile, Jon Alexander favors their methods as well as officials acting to expand citizens’ roles in governance.39 As these very worthy but limited-scale endeavors proceed, we now have Russia’s war on Ukraine which has dealt a huge setback to climate progress.  It is a brutal reminder of the persistent and ineluctable power of national governments as well as giant multinational corporations, especially those in the fossil fuel sector.  We are all the slaves of these latter, and also at the mercy of petrostate autocratic rulers, notably Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman.  Without question we must build human bonds, resilience and democratic practices in particular circumstances, but we must also take major political action to escape the slavery of our dependence on fossil fuel.  In his latest book It’s OK to Be Angry at Capitalism40  Bernie Sanders provides a considerable list of forces that diminish our freedom and therefore our selves that can be traced to money in politics, which requires mass citizen action to eliminate. 

Although they are not full solutions to our immediate crises, the alternatives I have mentioned represent progress toward the ultimate goal to be achieved through decentralization and degrowth, which is an ecological civilization consisting of fairly self-reliant small communities that are subsets of their local ecosystems and are governed by participatory democracy.  New technology for the ecological civilization is advancing now and is generally known as “regenerative.”  It aims chiefly to form mutually beneficial organic relations between the components of agricultural processes, communities and bioregions.  While I leave its development and practice to the experts, I wish here to give an essentialist perspective on it.    

I advocate knowing things by means of intuition of their essences, which is one of several human functions that exist on a continuous spectrum and that we normally exercise simultaneously.  Sets of functions of essences constitute natures, for example, the material nature which consists in their manifestations of the laws of physics.  Acting primarily in this nature I can approach a tree and, applying force, strike it with an axe and so reduce it to logs to burn.  Alternatively, acting in a fuller capacity as a living human being, I can approach a tomato vine as likewise living while producing fruit for my benefit and pour water on it to sustain its life.  I intuit its essence, its life, and as I care for it – love it – I am aware that it loves me as well, lovingly giving me its produce.   

In Being Alive I explained that the experience of love is the immediate awareness of the conjoined lives of the lover and the beloved, and this applies to relationships with nonhuman natural things as well as with humans.  Much is written about feelings of unity with natural things, but these require caring actions, and as I act with care toward a living thing it not only responds affirmatively and productively to that action, but invites its expansion.  Inspired by Goethe, mountaineer W. H. Murray wrote in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans, that the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would have never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.41

Continuing with the example of the tomato vine one proceeds to discover more ways to support its life such as pulling weeds, removing pests, staking it and so on.  The radius of attention grows to include things around the vine – other plants, air, sunlight and soil, while one also studies the situation, brings forth relevant memories, does research and tries techniques.  Optimizing the life of the tomato ends with optimizing the lives of everything around it, including that of the gardener insofar as they relate to the tomato.  This means that all together they constitute an ecosystem which maintains the health of the plants, the soil and the gardener. 

What I have just sketched is a work of repair.  The best approach is obviously to build the project  literally from the ground up, getting all the pieces and their connections right in the first place, and this is basic regenerative technology which understands that nature willfully and lovingly supports human activity to establish mutually beneficial co-existence.

Regenerative agriculture is now quite well developed with vast information on it widely available, and it serves as a model for developing regenerative human communities.  This last project is a considerably heavier lift, for which there are definite reasons.  Unlike nonhuman  entities people are affected by ideology and do not always function in all of their multiple natures but rather can act alternately as individuals, members of families, communities, factions and so on.  Still, I share my essentialist thoughts on regenerating communities.        

The process begins with intuiting the human essence of individual people.  In 1955 Baldwin wrote that Blacks want to be recognized as men, as human beings, a fundamental demand expressed in the “I Am a Man” slogan of Martin Luther King Junior’s 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike and some of the Black Lives Matter and Tyre Nichols marches and protests.  This is not to exclude women or LGBTQ+ folks, but to say “I am a human being.”  Presently people are known in terms of any number of other identities – gender, racial, jobs, political and many, many more but usually not as human beings.  Further, as Baldwin observed, when people despise others, they diminish themselves.  Changing this is a great step forward, since to approach someone as human and to extend care to them as a human being by nature evokes cooperation and love.  I say “by nature” because inasmuch as people do not usually think of themselves as being essentially or primarily human, much less act as such, a positive response is by no means automatic.  Nevertheless, such action is a start that at least kindles the magic to which Murray referred, and this is now being confirmed in some mutual aid projects and The Alternative’s Citizen Action Networks.  

So the plan is to approach people as human beings and act to serve their needs.  Insofar as this evokes cooperation one literally expands not only their own life but also those of the other people, and as the project takes account of more factors and people it moves toward the goal of establishing a community modeled after an ecosystem with all the parts serving themselves, all the other parts, in every respect and in a manner that the whole endures.  To the extent that each person’s life is maximized, relationships between them are as well, so others’ well-being enhances one’s own life, or, as Paul Wellstone put it, “We all do better when we all do better.”  Although it has multiple dimensions, that whole is a specifically human community in which its members are treated as human beings that have additional identities and histories.  Some local community projects with this intention are underway now, recreating what Berry describes as the shared life of Blacks and whites of his boyhood, except that then the land was mostly owned by whites.

For community regeneration to succeed, people must want to cooperate and achieve results, putting forth joint effort.  A key catalyst for this is in-person dialogue.  Nietzsche said, “A dialogue is the perfect conversation because everything that the one person says acquires its particular color, sound, its accompanying gesture in strict consideration of the other person to whom he is speaking…” It contrasts with “…the tone in which men interacting with whole groups of men tend to speak; it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: “That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!”42  This last is the speech of the marketing personality delivering their words for the consumption of an audience, typically in the form of authoritarian-style critical discourse.  By participants respecting and valuing each other’s contributions a real dialogue forges a positive functional conjunction between the participants. 

Regenerative idylls are not islands in the larger world.  Returning to the garden example we know that it is subject to larger forces that include drought or flooding that can wash away the topsoil, excessive heat and exotic species of pests and pathogens arriving through global commerce or rising planetary temperatures.  It can also be destroyed by any number of human forces – militias, drug gangs, corporate agents and war.  The same is true of the ideal community which, by itself is defenseless against these.  Everything in the garden, in addition to being parts of it, are also parts of nature as a whole, and insofar as it includes a person or persons and involves their rights it is also part of so many levels of governance going all the way up to the global.  In view of increasingly extreme and urgent threats preserving the community requires that its members actively participate as citizens in all these governing bodies.  Although Berry favors fairly subsistence farming without dependence on government, and small business people in rural America cherish self-determination, their ideals require private property rights which are secured by government.  Sellers further depend on customers and therefore a viable community of buyers which also ultimately necessitates government.

Many people who seek to restore nature and rebuild communities treat politics as separate from nature, literally unnatural, and avoid engaging in it.  One of the great benefits of my essentialism is that it asserts, with Aristotle, that man is by nature a political animal, despite the fact that in this capacity they can become and indeed now are corrupted.  Nevertheless, this is an essential aspect of their nature, in fact the highest one, and, as Rabbi Michael Pollack, leader of March on Harrisburg, insists, when their government becomes corrupt citizens have not only the right, but the duty to redeem it. 

One of the functions of the living community is to endure, so it is incumbent on its members to ensure that it does.  Parents are naturally concerned for the life-long well-being of their children, so any failure on their part to protect the future of the community and the earth is at best neglect and at worst abuse.  Meanwhile, Berry and hooks are absolutely correct in insisting on the value of elders in the community, history and traditions.  History plays a role, and it must be honored both by continuing and building upon good practices while correcting past mistakes.  For Blacks this means healing the wounds of slavery and racism and similar redress for the victims of other forms of oppression that include the natural environment.  With the past and persistent widespread injury, the supreme mission of all humans now is to unite in all of our identities, especially as citizens of all the polities to which we belong for global human and environmental justice.  

Although Miller, hooks, Berry express what many other well-intentioned people believe – that  life which is integrated with the natural place, its people and history is sufficient unto itself, they miss a key element identified by Hannah Arendt in her essay “What Is Authority?” People don’t instinctively live in harmony with each other and their natural environment, but rather require customs backed by authority, which is not force.  She writes, “…where force is used, authority itself has failed.”43  According to her authority consists of religion, tradition and ongoing practice, and in our present crisis of legitimacy we must keep these in mind.  Part of the wholeness that Berry describes is the practice of Christianity which, in its purest form, is extremely worthy.  Moreover liberal democracy is based on the belief in “god-given” fundamental rights, and across history and cultures we see that human authority alone is usually not sufficient as people appeal to their gods to sanction secular power.  At this time many attempts are being made to create whole communities or at least networks, and these are frequently groups that seek to rely on individual cooperation and omit some or all of Arendt’s elements of authority.  Although they may or may not endure, I observe that they in fact exist within the context of larger political bodies and established spiritual traditions.  In any case, I now want to move on to an exploration of spirituality, explaining how it figures in my essentialism and the life of the maximal self. 


Spirituality is a kind of experience that is distinct from sense perception, intuition, memory and imaginationThe first two of these are functional conjunctions of the subject insofar as they are perceiving or intuiting and objects insofar as they are perceptible or intuitable which form images and intuitions in the subject’s space of experience.  Memory, dreams and imagination are similar except they arise in the absence of their original actual objects.  These are the varieties of mundane experience of objects which we regard as having material existence, and they differ from what we consider to be spiritual experience in that the objects of the latter are regarded as being immaterial and of another, spiritual nature.  However, following William James in his lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience44 I assert that spiritual experience is real, and moreover, that spiritual entities are known solely as objects of such experience.   

While James speaks of “religious experience” rather than “spiritual experience,” he draws a clear distinction between religious practice and lore and the experience.  For religions as cultural entities are really mostly rituals, stories and moral codes, although, as he insists, they are founded on the actual religious experience of prophets, seers, patriarchs and so forth.  These experiences arise for their subjects in the course of and in the context of their lives.  Those related in the Bible were experienced, presumably, in particular geographic locations, and in the course of the history of the people there, thus, for example, the Incarnation is viewed by Christians as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophesies.  Spiritual experiences are therefore infused with mundane experience that renders them intelligible.  I have explained that common experience combines all of its varieties which exist on a continuum, with each form and even physical action fading into each other, and this is also true of the spiritual kind.  As a person’s physical, material body and their consciousness belong to different, although not totally separate dimensions of the universe, their spiritual experience belongs to yet another dimension which fades into and intersects with their private sphere of mundane consciousness.         

This view of human life makes sense in terms of my account of the universe as a single living infinitely diverse qualitative manifold in which individual lives are multi-dimensional configurations of the universal life.  Analogously to sense perception, spiritual experience is a functional conjunction between a person in their capacity as a spiritually conscious subject and an object in its capacity as an object of spiritual consciousness.  This functional conjunction produces the spiritual experience, actualizing the otherwise only potential spiritual functions of the subject and object. Such experience definitely has a temporal aspect and may have a spatial one as well.  The spirituality of the object therefore is known strictly as it is experienced and not in itself apart from this experience.  Moreover, the existence of the experience is proof that the object is not outside the universe, in a world absolutely separate from it, but fully belongs to it as it directly interacts with human inhabitants. 

The whole life includes spirituality, upon which religion is founded and that is, along with tradition, essential to authority.  Moving toward the whole ecological civilization I acknowledge our present religious pluralism, taking particular note of growing acceptance of ancient Eastern and Indigenous spiritualities.  So in what follows I explore a few varieties of spiritual experience and evaluate them for the purpose of advancing our ideal.  

As I have indicated, and James stresses, spiritual experience is personal, so in discussing religious traditions I rely especially upon my own experience associated with them.  The first is Christianity in connection of which I have shared some notable collective spiritual experiences: once in a Catholic service in which I could “cut the spirituality that filled the church with a knife” and then during a prayer in an AME Bible study in which the ambient spirituality was palpable.  These experiences are the reality to which Jesus referred when he said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”45  This is precisely Christian love, the very essence of that faith. 

I have also had a good number of spiritual experiences with natural objects, and in interpreting these I mostly follow Ted Andrews’ Animal Speak46and Nature Speak47 which are catalogs of the animals, plants and other natural phenomena to which cultures past and present, especially Indigenous ones, have attached meanings.  They function as signs with messages transmitted to humans who are receptive to them.  My essentialism describes natural things such as fauna and flora as essences whose primary nature is that of their species, and these operate in what I have identified as the physical dimension.   Further, as objects of our consciousness they are functionally conjoined with our essence in this respect in our space of experience which constitutes another dimension of both of our lives.  In like fashion they also have a spiritual dimension which is manifested in the conjunction of humans’ spiritually conscious nature with the natures of things as objects of spiritual consciousness.  While also functionally conjoined with the things in sense perception, intuition plus love, one becomes aware of them as signs with messages to oneself.  Andrews lays out the messages that different species convey, and these are always of a moral nature, providing models, guidance or admonitions.  For natural objects deliver messages in response to people’s needs, whether or not subjects are explicitly aware of those.  All objects in nature have significations for humans, and are, according to Baudelaire “a forest of symbols.”48  The whole world is therefore a total allegory, telling people to practice the array of virtues summarized in the four classical ones – courage, wisdom, justice and temperance, the last being notable in that it is represented in the ecological harmony of nature.  It is not only animals and plants with which people may have spiritual experiences but also geological and hydrological features, natural communities and places.  In ancient and Indigenous cultures sacred springs, groves, rocks, mountains and lands abound, the spiritual natures of which command that they receive special reverent treatment.  Practices and attitudes connected with them are traditions that are indivisible parts of the cultures which include their whole places and histories and define the lives of all the members.   

Andrews also speaks of magic and medicine, advising readers to dwell on the experience of receiving a message from some natural object.  For it extends into a spiritual awareness of the conjunction of the lives of the subject and the object in which the object acts to strengthen or heal the subject.  Such awareness may spread into other natures of the object including its natures as parts of larger natural units as the subject becomes conjoined in spiritual experience with those units as well.  Entering a healing relationship with a particular natural object therefore tends to move a person into such relationship with more comprehensive natural objects, ultimately the whole universe, with their larger messages and aid for our lives.  

To have spiritual experience in nature a person must initially be receptive to it in the way expressed by Emily Dickinson, “The soul should always stand ajar,” or, more directly, as Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find.”  

Many environmentally-minded people are now turning toward Indigenous animism as they withdraw from mainstream religion.  This nature spirituality is embedded in total cultures and is therefore not fully accessible to outsiders even though these ways of life have become somewhat diluted.  Still, at the present time non-Indigenous people can make spiritual contact with natural beings to some extent and thereby expand their selves into this dimension.  Former CEO of Rodale Press Maria Rodale has recorded some of her in-depth spiritual experiences in Love, Nature, Magic: Shamanic Journeys into the Heart of My Garden.49  She relates encounters with garden-variety species including several pests that spiritually delivered their particular messages to her and which she summarizes as their wish that we practice kindness, gentleness, reciprocity and gratitude.  Meanwhile, we continue to live in the modern world with its major religions which need to address the current crisis.  In contrast with animism, Christianity’s mission is to care for all men, and this needs to be updated to take account of the environment.  Since people’s lives depend on a healthy environment, Berry sees care for nature as a natural corollary for Christianity, while simple care for creation is another one.  Pope Francis in his second encyclical50  has in fact called for this.  

While personal spiritual experience including revelations form the foundation of religions, they involve, as I have mentioned, much more in the way of stories and practices, all adding up to major components of so many particular cultures.  My essentialism includes a spiritual dimension which is the source of them all, but which is known to us only in spiritual experiences, all of which are equally real and true.  So in assessing religions we need to consider also their contexts in history and place.  Indigenous religions are earth and place-based, and they dominated the world until great empires came into being.  The Roman Empire, for example, encompassed a vast territory with countless local cultural traditions, so it inevitably moved to a universal church centered on humans.  As it fell with the decay of the secular power and widespread slaughter from invasions its people became preoccupied with other-worldly matters, especially the afterlife.  An immense institution, the Christian Church, was established, and while its dominance has persisted throughout the modern age, it is now in serious conflict with present material conditions.  It can reform again, as it has several times in the past, to now remain one faith among the growing plurality, all of which must address the world’s urgent existential crises.  It should not repeat its history of relieving people’s current self-minimizing fear by shifting their attention from their life in this world to an afterlife in different one.     

The Eastern tradition, of which a variety of forms exist, is also now gaining adherents.  Taoism and Confucianism in my view are primarily philosophies rather than spiritualities, as the former in particular revolves around expansive kinds of love such as love for all things.  Belief in spiritual beings belongs to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, and some of these faiths admit particular kinds of spiritual experiences.  Like Christianity these religions today are centered on human life at the expense of the nonhuman, and while they do serve noble human ends, they too need to adapt to the current crises.   

There is considerable variation in the different spiritualities’ positions on the subject of evil: for some it looms large, and in others it is nonexistent.  As I have said, much of religion is lore and rituals that surround spiritual experience, so what is labeled “evil” tends to actually be certain natural impulses and temptations.  While religions past and present refer to mischievous, vengeful, destructive and malicious spirits and deities, I observe that there is real degradation in nature, mostly caused by humans, which may be experienced in a variety of spiritual forms.  In any case bad things do exist in the world, mostly related to human activity, and in the interests of ourselves and the world we must act to remedy them.  

Nearly all experience consists of mixtures of the various kinds, and, as I have stated, they all fade into each other, along with physical action, at their edges.  In Being Alive I defined love as the immediate awareness of life, meaning natural life.  Now examining spirituality, we find forms of spiritual love into which natural love fades.  So we have a fairly continuous hierarchy of experience which spans the orders of nature – individual essences, the progressively inclusive collectivities of which they are parts and finally the spiritual dimension.  The full human life consists in maximum balanced functioning in all of our capacities and identities. 

This fact furnishes the argument against war, including religious conflicts.  Religions are parts of total cultures that encompass geographic territories, and these are the principal objects of contention in wars.  From the perspective of whole human life both secular and holy war represent disharmony between the spiritual and material dimensions of human life as well as people’s identities as individuals, members of communities, parts of nature and global humanity and therefore constitute corruption of the whole life.  In addition, as in war people devalue, minimize and kill other humans, they also minimize their own selves, while at the same time they risk being killed as well.  

Along with including one’s place which is immediately one’s locality and ultimately the earth, the whole life has a temporal dimension in which the past is prolonged into the present and the future.  History and tradition are parts of life that also include present and expected future conditions.  The material world is literally the past from which the present and future are constructed, so while there’s no denying the past, it must be put to good use, as for example Germans use the history of the Holocaust to educate and act to ensure that it is never again repeated.  In a similar fashion our technological, religious, economic and political heritage must be appropriately utilized as the people of the world act to make their lives whole in order to bring about the future survival of humanity and the earth.  

This full life has the structure that I have described.  People are autonomous individual human beings with multiple functions as they also form parts of so many collective wholes.  Their defining function is their faculty of reason by which they understand the world and how to act in it, with the fundamental knowledge for this purpose supplied by a philosophy, world view or paradigm that explains what the world is made of and how it is organized.  My philosophy furnishes this knowledge, particularly providing vital understanding of the structure of the world and our experience of it.  For we act not just on things in the world but on specific aspects of them.  I have given some examples of the various natures that things possess such as material, instrumental and organic.  The fact that in the modern age we have related to humans in mostly material and instrumental manners is enough to tell us that the respect in which we regard humans, and everything else for that matter, is crucially important.  We now want to treat things in terms of their living natures, and the proper ones among these.       

While we are subject to spiritual guidance our action is natural, material and physical, performed by our bodies with conscious understanding.  We are individual rational agents functionally conjoined with other humans in collective rational bodies that constitute polities, and in our present crisis we must act primarily as citizens of all the levels of them from local to global.  Although the environmental crisis may tempt people to put nature above all else, a recent documentary film dramatizes why they should not.  The Living Mountain51is a film about an Indigenous tribe in Columbia that for millennia have practiced a culture indivisibly united with the mountain, viewing themselves as one with it.  But now their land and everything on it are being destroyed by resource extraction and development.  What can they do?  The mountain doesn’t vote, nor the waters nor the trees.  Only they as citizens can vote, file litigation, stage protests, run for office or otherwise take political control to gain protection for the nonhuman resources and themselves.  On a related matter the New York Times recently reported, “Illegal mines have fueled a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami Indigenous group. Brazil’s new president is trying to fight back.”52 This is what it comes down to, folks.  With the massive inequality in wealth and power that exists today it is more true than ever that the only thing that can protect the weak against the strong is government, specifically local participatory democracy and robust representative democracy at all higher levels.  

The Maximizing Self

Although I have spoken of fullness and wholeness of lives and minimization and maximization of selves rather as if these were attributes of them, in reality lives and selves aren’t things.  In Being Alive I asserted that the experience of love is the immediate awareness of life, which upon examination is found to be the substance of the universe.  Individual lives are particular configurations of the universal life which is an infinitely diverse qualitative manifold whose function consists of infinitely harmonizing action.  There was some ambiguity in this account, for I claimed that life is both substance and action, with this last characterization suggesting that the action was distinct from the thing that acts.  This raises one of the hot questions of our time: do matter and material things exist?  For while we no longer insist that material things must possess the classical property of mass, we do demand that they have extension, that is, spatial volume.  This implies that actions must be performed by spatially extended things whose actions they are.   

I resolve my ambiguity by affirming that life does not have extension or is extended in the sense that these are properties of it, as if the extension of my body is something distinct from its life.  Rather, I say that life is extending: that one of its actions is to spatially extend.  Indeed my examination of life in Being Alive disclosed that one of its attributes is radiance.  This view expresses what we actually observe: things that grow spatially extend themselves; lifting my arm I extend my body, and looking around I extend my conscious perception.  However, mere growth and spatial movement do not fully represent the extending action of life in its universal and particular forms.  A more accurate representation is the man Katsimbalis, whose life was an effusive impulsion by which he variously and exuberantly extended his essence into the world around him, to which action other essences responded in kind.    

Extending is thus a vigorous and fundamental function of life which it performs both as the whole universal life and as particular lives.  With this understanding of the spatiality of life we see that consciousness is exactly what it appears to be – three-dimensionally extended images and intuitions in our private space of experience, at the center of which is the image of our body, formed by the functional conjunction of our essences with those of external objects. To look around to find objects that I might touch or move with my body I reach out to them in my capacity as a seeing subject, as they at the same time are reaching out to me in their capacity as visible objects, all within the continuously extending living universe.      

The universe is filled with individual essences whose action is driven by desire and is therefore intentional.  Accordingly, their acts of extending consist of reaching out to other essences around them specifically in order to functionally conjoin with them.  Thus in walking I extend my legs with the intention of functionally conjoining my body with the ground which supports it as in turn it exerts pressure on the ground.  Gravity is a superb example of how essences reach out to each other and functionally conjoin – across the universe.  The moon draws the sea toward itself, while the sun likewise draws the earth; meanwhile heliotropism is the action of plants reaching out to the sun which concurrently draws them forth.     

For essences extending is not unlimited: living things don’t continue to grow forever or for their entire lifetimes but rather reach a peak size relative to their environment.  At the same time however plants’ extending functions of respiration, nutrition and possibly reproduction do continue over their lifetimes, while animals continue these functions plus motion.  In addition, as extending functions are always reciprocal, surrounding objects can be more and less receptive.  Thus, roots can’t penetrate rocks and night time darkness prohibits photosynthesis.   

With this case of a plant and a rock, we return to the multiple natures of things.  The plant in its nature as a living thing desires to extend its roots deeper into the ground, but the rock in its material nature resists that effort.  Above I gave the example of the tree in its material nature resisting the strikes of a person’s axe, while the tomato vine was receptive to their watering and staking it.  So, with our material functions, which are the subject matter of physics, we can fell trees, assemble stones to make buildings and apply countless other physical actions to the material natures of things.  Alternatively, functioning primarily as living human beings, we can act upon things as likewise primarily living essences, functionally conjoining our essence with theirs for deep and varied mutual benefit. 

In the example of the tomato vine the gardener performs several acts for its welfare as it reciprocates by bearing a good crop of fruit.  Maria Rodale’s book describes multiple human uses for different plant species, while regenerative agriculture goes into how individual crop species and combinations of them enhance the soil and each other’s lives.  All of these effects are the results of things reaching out to each other multidimensionally as living essences and establishing rich mutually beneficial functional conjunctions.  Again leaving regenerative science and technology to the experts, I now proceed to elaborate the extending function of human essences.   

Perception consists in reaching out to external objects as a perceiving subject and forming the functional conjunctions with them that constitute images and intuitions of them.  These are extensions of both the subject and the objects in which they are joined in the three-dimensional images and intuitions located in the subject’s space of experience.  As items of experience objects are parts of subjects’ essences or lives while subjects are also parts of objects’ essences or lives.  In modern time humans have given their attention chiefly to the sensory qualities of things, although intuitions of them are invariably present in consciousness because we are aware of what things are and not just their appearances.  In any case, consciousness can be more or less full, that is more or less minimal or maximal.  Full experience of external objects involves both awareness of their essences, their very lives and the fact that one’s own life extends into those of the objects, and theirs into one’s own. 

At the same time that a person reaches out to the object as a seeing and intuiting subject, the object reaches out to them as visible and intuitable.  Attending primarily to its sensory nature, the subject diminishes the object’s function and its life in their conjunction that constitutes the image, while they also diminish themselves.  Does this idea sound familiar?     

As experience is multidimensional, so is bodily action, and this is illustrated by my examples of cutting the tree and nurturing the tomato vine:  I can relate to things in terms of mine and their material natures or relate to them as living essences.  These are multi-functional, thus I can interact with the tomato vine as a thing producing fruit, something that draws water from the soil or both, as I pour water on it to keep it growing.  Like with perception, to the extent that my action with respect to the plant, that is, my extension into its life, is multidimensional, it is multidimensionally extended into my life, enriching and maximizing both of our lives.  This contrasts with cutting the tree which supplies material products – lumber or firewood – for my consumption, but extinguishes the life of the tree.  Logs can be processed in many ways, but insofar as they are processed, they limit a person’s potential interaction with them, since final products, for example, chairs offer only a single physical use.   

While they live other nonhuman things potentially benefit humans in multiple ways: the apple tree provides fruit and shade while its transpiration cools the air.  It also benefits humans indirectly in several ways such as by absorbing carbon dioxide and air pollutants.  A person for their part plants and stakes the young tree, also protecting it from animals that might destroy it and keeping the ground clear of competing vegetation.  The actions of both the tree and the person constitute functional conjunction that is a certain unity between the two, of which the person may be conscious in the experience of loving the tree and being aware that it loves them.  Such a relationship of unity can exist on a larger scale, for example, Berry’s relationship with his farm, of which the land and soil formed the ground but also included everything else on it and with which he interacted in a multitude of different ways.  His life was literally extended over the expanse of the farm as the lives of everything on it were extended into his, making the farm a living whole which was in turn a living part of the whole local community and ultimately the whole universe.      

The sense of whole unity with places is fairly well known, and this is what Berry identified as the soul of the Confederacy, which included the institution of Black slavery.  He correctly diagnosed that as a fundamental defect in the whole that reciprocally diminished Blacks and whites.  In our quest for the maximal self we arrive at the knowledge that it is the human life or essence maximally extended into other lives in ways that furnish maximal mutual benefit.  This view is not utilitarianism, which is a system of political economy in which the units are generic human beings.  Rather, it is an understanding of the world in which every person is an individual extending human life co-existing in the whole living universe with infinitely numerous and diverse other individual extending human and nonhuman lives.  Every relationship of every person, indeed every thing, extends their essence in a more or less mutually beneficial, that is, maximizing or minimizing manner into that of the other essence.

This description is illustrated by spiritual healing, in which the radiance of essences is displayed.  For the healing entity is spiritually experienced as extending a specific healing function into one’s body that expands into the function of healing one’s whole life including their bodily habits.  The experience reveals how the functions of parts of essences extend – radiate – throughout the wholes of which they are parts.   Spiritual functions make evident the effusive impulsion of essences, and we should seek to actualize them in due measure.  

Returning now to individual human relationships we see that maximizing my self relative to you entails maximizing you relative to me, and at a minimum this means us both functioning in our full human natures, not as Black and white, boss and worker or even worker and worker, but as human being and human being.  This relationship, as I have stated, by nature generates the magic described by Murray who named an additional essential element: boldness.  Maximal action, which is exemplified by Katsimbalis, is vigorous and magnanimous.  As it is the nature of all things to extend, that is to radiate their lives, we see that to fail to act in one’s full human nature or to be prevented from so acting diminishes one’s radiance and thus minimizes their life or self.  It is like reducing the energy of the sun or fire, producing cold and darkness, which is the metaphor of the popular civil rights song This Little Light of Mine.              

We are not generic human essences, but rather ones with individualizing characteristics and histories, while we also exist in places in which we form more and less organic parts.  Full human relationships necessarily include these parts of our selves, for even in my illustrations with the tomato vine and the apple tree, one is dealing with these plants in these places with their own histories.  We in fact wish to be treated as the individual person that we are and suffer distress, like Baldwin, when nobody knows our name or knows who we are.  It is precisely when we interact as full human beings that we unlock the magic, so we must not only act as fully human ourselves and approach others as such, but, in addition, draw out their full human selves. 

Nor are we merely so many individual selves interacting solely as such.  Rather, by nature we are also organic parts of families, communities, multiple levels of polities, ecosystems, humanity as a whole and the biosphere, and the whole life, the whole self involves functioning in all these identities as well as within the spiritual order.  This is a lot to juggle, requiring diligent exercise of practical and political reasoning.  These functions are critical insofar as it is the nature of both individual and collective essences to extend – something we see dramatically illustrated throughout history and in our own time.  Individual people tend to want to possess and control more things, while identity groups, especially nations, are tempted to conquer more lands and peoples.  But, as we are constantly reminded in our time of environmental resource overshoot, there are natural limits to growth of all kinds.  With the exercise of reason the maximal self achieves the proper proportion among all aspects of their life. This involves the proper functioning of the multiple collectives of which one is a part, so we see that the wholeness or maximation of one self requires the same for all persons and selves.  Again, we all do better when we all do better.

It is a fact that one can’t be a truly good and fulfilled person in a corrupt society on a degraded planet, and neither religion nor spirituality can save them.  This reality is expressed in Dostoyevsky’s tale of the Christ figure Prince Mishkin who proved to be unfit to survive outside the insane asylum.53  Religion and spirituality are dimensions of human life, and to have significant impact on mortal being they must exist in supportive cultural contexts which may allow religious pluralism.     

Still, it is our natural desire to achieve the full life, that is, to strive to properly fulfill the functions of all of our identities to achieve the well-being of ourselves, all the natural wholes of which we are parts including the natural universe plus our spiritual dimension.  Each of the natural collectivities similarly has as its telos the well-being of all the parts and wholes, so in this time of multiple urgent crises maximizing one’s self means joining with all other humans as they also maximize themselves in working together to establish the ecological civilization that will save humanity and the world.  As each person’s life is an effusive impulsion of all of their natures, their history and place, conditions notwithstanding, they must be that impulsion.   For our natural drive is to vigorously and magnanimously maximize our selves, while such action by nature evokes similarly maximal responses from other people and things.   

Presently the spheres of life are extremely out of balance, pitting individuals against communities and polities, humans and religions against nature, religions against polities, polities against polities as well as polities, religions and nature against humans.  While public opinion is in fact in favor of at least a more ecological civilization, movement toward it is obstructed by the global power elite that has captured the governments of most nations.  This is why the most urgent need is for people to act as citizens to first establish democratic control then proceed to secure justice for all human and nonhuman beings.  Human collectivities have histories which figure in them similarly as in individuals, so moving forward tradition has a large role to play, especially the Western traditions of rationality and democracy.  Some traditions are contrary to human and natural life and should be renounced, but otherwise they are the material for our practical and political reasoning in pursuit of the maximal fulfillment of our history and ourselves. 


1. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, (New York: Norton, 1979).

2. Phila Back, Being Alive: A Guide for Human Action, (Googlebooks, 2022). https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=o7RmEAAAQBAJ

3.  Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 113.

4.  Ibid.

5.  Ibid, 118

6.  Ibid, 128

7.  Ibid, 114.

8.  Ibid.

9.  Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990).

10. Ross Douthat, “’Fleischman is in Trouble’ and the Angst of the Striving Upper Class.” New York Times, January 20, 2023.

11. David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. Abr. ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961).

12. Erich Fromm Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (New York: Fawcett World Library, 1966).

13. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

14. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000).

15. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (New York: Anchor Books, 1959).

16. Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of the Neurosis, (New York: Norton, 1945).

17. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1922).

18. Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

19. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict, (London: Verso,1996), 199-205.

20. George Perec, Things: A Story of the Sixties, trans. Helen R. Lane, (New York: Grove Press, 1967). 

21. Lasch, The Minimal Self, 34.

22. Ibid, 31.

23. David Marchese, “The Digital Workplace is Designed to Bring You Down.” New York Times, January 22, 2023.

24. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love, (Cambridge, UK, Polity Press, 2003), 34-5.

25. Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, (New York: New Directions, 1945), 109.

26. James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: The Library of America, 1998).

27. Walter Moseley, Life out of Context, (New York: Nation Books, 2006).

28. Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, (New York: New Directions, 1941), 240.

29. Ibid, 238.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid, 240-241.

32. bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, (New York: Routledge, 2009).

33. Wendell Berry, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, (Berkeley: Shoemaker & Co., 2022).

34. Ibid, Chapter VIII.

35. David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2010), 169.

36. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 114.

37. Tim Hollo, Living Democracy: An Ecological Manifesto for the End of the World as We Know It, (Sydney, NewSouth, 2022), 94-95.

38. Hollo, Living Democracy.

39. Jon Alexander, Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything Is All of Us, (Kingston upon Thames: Canbury, 2022).

40. Bernie Sanders, It’s OK to Be Angry about Capitalism, (New York: Crown, 2023).

41. W.H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1951), 7. 

42. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Section Six, Aphorism # 374.

43. Hannah Arendt, “What Is Authority” in Between Past and Future, (New York: Viking, 1961), 93. 

44. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917).

45. Matthew 18:20.

46. Ted Andrews, Animal Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small, (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2004).

47. Ted Andrews,  Nature-Speak: Signs, Omens & Messages in Nature, (Jackson, TN: Dragonhawk Publishing, 2004).

48. Charles Baudelaire, Correspondences.

49. Maria Rodale, Love, Nature Magic: Shamanic Journeys into the Heart of My Garden, (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing: 2023). 

50. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015. 

51. Alan Ereira.  (Nov. 2, 2020). The Living Mountain [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOZ_isY6tZU

52. Jack Nicas, “The Amazon’s Largest Isolated Tribe is Dying.” New York Times, March 25, 2023.

53. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, trans. Constance Garnett, (New York: Dell, 1962).