This post was originally posted to r/philosophy but taken down in short order because I dunno…mods suclk and I didn’t read the rules of the sub lol. Enjoy!
I’m currently making an ayahuasca pilgrimage to Peru and I’ve been listening to “The Alchemist” fairly frequently. It’s a great (audio)book I’d suggest everyone read.
A major theme of the book is metaphor and allegorical representation; basically that some things can’t be understood in “the language of man” but must be understood/felt through “the language of the world/universe.”
This is a bit problematic from a scientific perspective, and by extension from a philosophical perspective insofar as so much of the philosophy I’ve seen on this sub is very masculine energy: deductive, mathematical and logical. This is by no means a criticism; on the contrary I find the elaborate proofs very clever and beautiful, but its a beauty that is both appealing and inaccessible to me because my mind works differently than that. Less focused perhaps you might say….
I have instead always been drawn to complex metaphors (probably why I always did well in English Lit classes) and enjoyed playing with them in my head, taking them to extremes to see if they held up.
I am going to take two of the metaphors that appear late in the book, hold them up side by side, compare, extrapolate their implications, and then make inferences about what they mean for us living on this planet. If this is not your cup of tea, you’ve been warned.
Also, biologists in the crowd might notice that I (and the book) are pretty fast and loose with our use of the word “evolution.” If that’s a problem for you you might wanna stop reading here.
With your indulgence I’ll begin…
THEORETICAL MODEL OF EVOLUTION #1
Late in the novel, Santiago/the boy/the protagonist is in a position where he has to turn himself into the wind. He engages the desert around him in conversation. The desert laments that it raises game animals in its sand, nourishing them, only for the falcon to pluck up those animals to nourish man.
The boy, echoing Mufasa’s talk with Simba in The Lion King, tells him this is true but that man also one day returns to he desert, in turn nourishing the game.
The desert asks, “Is that what love is?” And the boy responds yes; its the force that makes the desert evolve into the game (by nourishing it), the game nourishes/evolves into the falcon (or man in this case), which then becomes the desert over time.
Is this tenable in quantitative terms? Well, if we reduce the game, say a rabbit, to its constituent atoms which are then incorporated into the falcon or man through consumption, there is a undeniable way in which what was once rabbit has become something else. This “becoming something else” (more accurately “something better”…more on that later) is what the book means when it talks about evolution.
Now before moving onto the next theoretical model, what we should take from this one is:
-Evolution is cyclical
-You evolve into what you nourish
-Evolution may be synonymous with death.
These points applied to the next theoretical model helped me understand it better and make interesting inquiries into my own life.
THEORETICAL MODEL OF EVOLUTION #2
Prior to his conversation with the desert, the boy rides through the desert with the Alchemist who drops knowledge on him. Explaining early alchemy he says, “For wise men, gold was the metal that was most evolved.”
Then, during a conversation with the sun (after the talk with the desert), the sun reveals that men felt copper, iron and lead needed to become gold, not realizing that those baser metals still had a role to play in the world we live in.
What we should take from this model:
-Gold WAS the most evolved for wise men in antiquity
-All things, even the less “evolved” have a role to play until such time as the world no longer has need for them, then they too will evolve
-This process of evolution is described as finite, ending at gold, but gold’s primacy was based on the wisdom of antiquity. If we view radioactive elements of higher atomic weight than gold as “more evolved” we realize that the process is indeed cyclical on some level because these elements have half-lives determining the rate at which they break down into either lower (on the periodic table)* elements or isotopes.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Applying the metals model to the desert one, we see that desert, game falcon and man all have a part to play and that the game would never rush to evolve into (be eaten by) man, and so similarly we should not rush to evolve/consume the fruits of the Earth beyond what we need at any given time.
Applying the desert model to metals, we can infer that the process of transmutation is cyclical (certainly we can see this through geological processes). Perhaps most importantly though (certainly most esoterically), we can see that a baser metal like lead, to become a more evolved metal like gold must somehow nourish it like the hare nourishes the falcon and becomes the falcon in that regard. The falcon and gold in turn must incorporate elements of the hare and lead respectively.
This is important: Less evolved things nourish more highly evolved things and more highly evolved things incorporate (not always through consumption) less evolved things. At least this is how it SHOULD be for evolution to move forward. More on what SHOULDN’T be later…
This compare and contrast was a fun little thought experiment, but it got a lot more interesting when I applied it to myself and the world around me.
Walk with me if you will as I share….
ALCHEMY, LOVE AND EVOLUTION (DEATH)
I started thinking about how I am somewhere in the cycle of life and I want to precipitate my process of evolution/death in order that I may become something better than I am now. Mind you I don’t want it to come prematurely, because the fact that I’m here as a man means I still have a role to play here as a man. But I want to be able to face it without fear and instead with an attitude of serenity and excitement (http://imgur.com/HK1wRW3).
Then I thought about nourishment: my death/evolution will nourish something, and the hope is that it will be something more evolved that “incorporates” me into itself (remember I said incorporation is not always consumption). Barring the possibility that I do get “eaten” by radiant beings of light, what else can I evolve into or nourish when I’m consumed? An ideal perhaps? We might call this martyrdom:** Nourishing an idea through a steadfast devotion to it even in the face of death. I liked that, but sadly not all ideals are created equally so I want to devote my life, and the death that could come at any moment, to those things most important to me: Love, Adventure, and of course Teh Lulz.
This realization of what you want to become when you die creates an imperative on how to use your remaining time here, because if you want to die nourishing some ideal you must first live a life exemplary of that ideal.
Well cool, I’m already on that Love-Adventure-Lulz path so no anxiety there. Moving on….
Knowing what I want to nourish and thus evolve into when I die, what nourishes me or evolves into man through my consumption/incorporation of it?
Here are a few things I eat: tomatoes, chicken, water, beef, nuts…I even tried grasshopper recently, pork…
You might say, in the same poetic and allegorical tone we’ve been using throughout, that I evolve these things into man through my consumption of them. And, my disdain for factory farming notwithstanding (less a product of general meat-eating tendencies, and more a result of the market obsession with cost-efficiency as the primary incentive), I’ve never had a problem with eating meat. In fact, I find it very nutritious to me personally and I tend to thrive on it.
Now that said, would I eat a human being? Or a dolphin? Or a chimp? No, I would not. I think most of us have an innate revulsion to eating these creatures. Is it done? To be sure, but we frown upon it at least in the Western world and I think the idea of evolution I have been expounding is important here. You see these things are evolutionarily on even footing with us; other human beings most obviously, but chimps and dolphins are right there in that sentient being zone. We’re so close to them evolutionarily speaking that we can’t evolve them through consumption. And if we’re not advancing evolution, that is making everything better around us, we are committing SIN.
When I say sin, there is no moral grounding or religious connotation, I simply mean stymieing the collective evolution by either not progressing it or moving it backwards.
There are many examples of Sin.
-As I mentioned consuming that which is as evolved as (or more evolved than) you
-Consuming/evolving too much of less-evolved things and thus not allowing them to play their part
-Allowing yourself to be consumed by less evolved things (devolving)
-Unfettered propagation of life without respect to the balance of evolution (this one is problematic for me and I’m still playing with it)
Death is a difficult topic to discuss in earnest, and as a way of coping we either get religious and fanciful talking about heaven and eternal rewards, or we get matter of fact like, “You die and then you’re dead.” There is very little in the way of practical discussion (beyond estate planning).
My own misgivings about the military-industrial complex and the war-machine notwithstanding, I am thankful for my time in the military because it forced me to ask myself a serious question about death: “What will I die in service of?” or, in the parlance of this post, “What will I die to nourish and thus evolve into?”
I didn’t like the answer, but I’m so thankful the question occurred to me as it made me take my life and what I devote it to a lot more seriously
*I had initially gone with the assumption that the four metals given in the book, Cu Fe Pb and Au were given in that order in accordance with occurrence on the periodic table and that a higher atomic number equated to “more evolved.” After referring to the table and seeing their occurrence is actually Fe Cu Au Pb, i have abandoned the blanket notion that higher atomic number necessarily means “more evolved,” but I would still contend that highly radioactive elements unknown to alchemists of antiquity might still constitute more highly evolved metals than gold.
**Martyrdom gets a bad rap because its conflated with tactics of violent extremism. I take it to mean willing to serenely and peacefully accept death at the hand of another without doing violence, in order that your death may galvanize those around you and redeem the transgressor who will be more likely to see the error of his ways if you don’t justify his violence with aggression or hatred.