The Zombie Enlightenment enslaves us to a new religion.
Be at Peace with Your Body
Your mind is not the only thing you are.
In the age of COVID, we re-invented society because we thought we could transcend our bodies. Slathering surfaces in alcohol, staying 6 feet apart, ubiquitous face coverings, crushing and contorting our minds and bodies in a confinement mediated only by the schizophrenic pulses of endless screens—in these ways we demonstrated that our highest goal is now the protection of mere life. Through the powers of Reason and Science, we have tried to protect our bodies and those of others near and far from the vagaries of death and disease. If the mind commands it, we hope, the body will obey.
The autonomous, sovereign individual is the supreme subject of our liberal order. He is wholly distinct from others like himself, and most of all, he is self-ruled in every particular. He is master of his domain, empowering him to make choice after choice on his own path toward happiness and overall utility maximization. One of the most valuable tools at his disposal in this effort is his body. The body is his interface to the world, a sort of command hub for his sovereign consciousness, equipped with sensors, grasping appendages, transportation features, and areas for recreation and purification.
But the body is a fickle beast, a bucking bronco. It often doesn’t do as it’s told. Some subdue it more effectively than others: our world contains both the ascetic, intermittently fasting tech millionaire and the 400-pound Appalachian single mother. The former understands how to operate his machinery with finesse; the latter has simply chosen wrongly (or at least has prioritized a different, more pressing utility). Some have a stronger whip, a more far-reaching view, better choice architecture, and the foresight to implement it. Some get swallowed up by an unrelenting tide of irrevocably wrong, yet ultimately free, choices.
But all are fundamentally convinced that the body is an outward expression of the true self, the rational agent. On this view our meat sacks are in effect an embellishment, a testament to our talent at living or lack thereof. So the body is starved, cut, stuffed, injected, jolted awake, sedated, confined to a chair for 12h a day, used as a rollercoaster or cash machine for both the self and others, and mutilated—all as rational choice demands. Whether the body becomes an ever-more beautiful vessel or an ever more run-down receptacle, it is there to be consumed.
Whether we realize it or not, we have accepted that man is essentially, despite his admitted but fixable shortcomings, a rational actor. That is his deepest truth, his realest identity—the rest is noise or accident. The body is part of the world of shadows—either simply subsidiary, maybe even illusory, or at the very least unnecessary after we can upload our(selves) to the cloud at the time of the digital rapture. It hardly needs saying that this is a digital-era form of neo-Gnosticism.
This ancient heresy has never been more attractive, more plausible. Our minds, enthralled by digital realities, can slip into believing that great lie—that they can leave the body behind. But in truth, it can never be so. The body is, irrevocably, not only a part of the world we inhabit. It is also, in ways the rational actor cannot conceive, the stage on which our world plays.
There is no pure, abstracted mind, viewing and exerting its will on all that matter “out there.” There is only mind and soul incarnate: we are each of us a consciousness that lives in, thinks with, and yes, acts upon, matter. We will misunderstand this as long as our relationship with our body is one of dominance, rejection, idolatry, or escapism. We remain caught in an illusion, either permanently frustrated at the rank insubordination or whipping ourselves harder trying to steer the machine in the few glimpses of “control” it allows.
A new relationship with the body needs to honor it on its own terms—with its many intuitions, aches, moods, subtle or acute needs. We can feed ourselves, move, tend the labyrinthine garden of mind and body, all through practices that may predate the very recent rise of reason’s whip.
There is no more escape from the body than there is from the mind—the two are one, though they play at being strangers to each other. In exercise, in lovemaking, in kneeling to pray, maybe we can even forget why for a while—can act according to our intuitions and be led by more than conscious knowledge. The mind does not always have to call the shots.