Many enthusiasts of Whitehead's philosophy are earthy in their approach to life. They find inspiration in a range of world-affirming themes, including interconnectedness, creativity, novelty, value, beauty, and the love of God. What resonates most profoundly with them is the idea that God is a "lure" within human existence, guiding humans towards truth, goodness, beauty, and vitality. They emphasize the immanence of God within the world, downplaying the ways in which God may also be transcendent. They think of their approach as natural, not supernatural. They are, as it were, earthy Whiteheadians. For the earthy Whiteheadian, Whitehead's perspective is an invitation to approach life with a sense of adventure and engagement, embracing existence with a Nietzschean passion for the flow and flux of things, for laughing and dancing, all the while nurturing compassion and a fervor for justice. They view their approach as world-affirming, not world-negating, as immersed rather than withdrawn, as engaged rather than distant, as attached rather than detached. In their minds, Whitehead elicits a profound passion for existence—a lust for life.
Not hugging but bowing
However, there is another side of Whitehead's philosophy, one imbued with a spirit less driven by acquisition and more resonant with early Buddhist and Schopenhauerian sensibilities. If the first side is world-craving, then this other side is softer. It is marked by a contemplative, quieter disposition, recognizing that in life we are always seeking satisfaction, but that lasting satisfaction is elusive. We are always on our way toward a satisfaction that never quite arrives. True peace, it suggests, lies in letting go of excessive attachments to finite things as if they were infinite. If the first approach to Whitehead invites a hug, the second encourages a bow.
This quieter aspect of Whitehead's thought is supported by various ideas found throughout his corpus. These include:
Perpetual Perishing as the Ultimate Evil: Life unfolds as an incessant process of "perpetual perishing" of immediate subjective experiences. Nothing endures except in divine memory.
Actual Entities as Evanescent Moments of Experience: The building blocks of the universe are not things that endure through time but rather moments or "occasions" of experience.
The Impossibility of Experiencing Satisfaction as an Object of Experience in the Present Moment: Each moment of experience (actual occasion, actual entity) never truly grasps or savors its own satisfaction, as satisfaction itself is the perishing of its subjective immediacy.
Becoming that "Never Really Is": The subjective immediacy of any given moment of experience lacks stability; it becomes but never really is.
The Illusion of Questing for, or believing in, a Substantial Self: There is no self-contained or separate self presiding over experience as a spectator; there is only the experience itself.
The Problem of Perpetual Restlessness: Any moment of satisfaction, even if momentarily enjoyed, inevitably gives way to the pursuit of another satisfaction.
Peace as Release from Acquisitive Desire and a Surpassing of Personality: Ultimate fulfillment in human life lies in freeing oneself from the burden of acquisitive desire and the self-centeredness that accompanies it. True contentment is found in peace rather than acquisition.
From these ideas, it follows that in our daily lives, we are perpetually chasing after a satisfaction that never quite arrives. In Buddhist terms, life as we ordinarily experience it is filled with dukkha or dis-ease, and the cause of that dukkha is tanha or craving after things that are permanent, unchanging, and satisfying. A more fulfilling path involves relinquishing the relentless pursuit of momentary satisfactions and awakening to a deeper beauty, a Harmony of Harmonies, where the trappings of personality fade away. Whitehead speaks of this deeper beauty as Peace.
Peace without Acquisition
For Whitehead, Peace is not a state of numbness or apathy but rather a positive sensation that crowns the life and motion of the soul. It defies easy definition and description. It does not depend on hopes for the future or a fixation on present details. Instead, it arises from a metaphysical insight, unspoken yet profound, in which our values are rearranged, and we gain perspective. Its initial effect is the alleviation of the anxious, acquisitive feelings stemming from the soul's self-absorption. Whitehead puts it this way:
"The Peace that is here meant is not the negative conception of anesthesia. It is a positive feeling that crowns the ‘life and motion’ of the soul. It is hard to define and difficult to speak of. It is not a hope for the future, nor is it an interest in present details. It is a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its coordination of values. Its first effect is the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling arising from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. Thus Peace carries with it a surpassing of personality." (Adventures of Ideas)
Is this Peace world-denying? Not exactly. It is a broadening of feeling, not a negation of feeling. The world still exists in its tragic beauty. But the world exists in a different way, because it is no longer an object of craving. Somehow the "I" or ego that so often gets in the way of wisdom has dropped away, along with the acquisitive desires that accompany that "I." The Peace of which Whitehead speaks is not world-denying, but it is also not world-affirming in a craving sort of way. It is, as noted above, a bow not a hug. A bow leaves space for the recipient: a space that is both distant and respectful. It is a letting be.
Bowing as Non-Grasping
Imagine someone who has awakened to the perpetual perishing of life and the unavailability of lasting satisfaction and who is drawn to something like what Whitehead calls Peace. Perhaps she is a Hindu who seeks to be at one with Brahman, or a Christian whose aim is union with God, or a Buddhist who wants to let go into Nirvana, or a Muslim whose self has collapsed into Allah, or a Jew who feels the sense of Ein Sof. Some might critique this person as escapist, as if that were a sin. But she might respond that she is being honest about the way things are: that in a world of perpetual perishing where everything becomes but nothing really is, the wisest response is to find serenity in something that transcends worldly vicissitudes. She does not leave the world behind, but she does not grab onto the world as an object of grasping or consumption. She does not hug the world; she bows to it.
This metaphorical bow signifies a graceful acceptance of the impermanence and flux of life, a recognition that ultimate fulfillment does not come from grasping at fleeting satisfactions but from letting go and finding serenity in something transcendent. It's an acknowledgment that the world is a place of beauty and wonder, but its true depth and richness are revealed when one releases the need to possess it and simply bows in reverence to its inherent mystery and impermanence. This is the softer side of Whitehead.
Humans cannot live by bows alone. We need to hug our children, hug our friends, and maybe even hug our enemies. The bowing side of Whitehead and the hugging side of Whitehead can go together.
Zen Buddhists suggest that we can bow while hugging if our minds and hearts are free from three poisons: greed, hatred, and confusion. In this freedom, we can give ourselves fully to what is happening in the here-and-now and to the call of the moment. From a Whiteheadian perspective, this call is the presence of God within us. The primordial vow of Amida Buddha. We can love life, and perhaps even lust for life, while letting go of things as they pass away. We are not free from the world; we are free in the world.
This coalescence of earthiness and relinquishment, of the erotic and the contemplative, of delight in life and the wisdom of non-grasping is, I believe, is the direction in which a Whiteheadian perspective points. It knows a Peace that loves without grabbing. It can bow, it can hug, and sometimes it can do both at the same time. In Buddhist terms, it is an gentle hugging that can let go when it is time to let go. In Christian terms, it is a Peace that surpasses all understanding.
- Jay McDaniel
Perpetual Perishing as the Ultimate Evil
The ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil. It lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a ‘perpetual perishing.’ Objectification involves elimination. The present fact has not the past fact with it in any full immediacy.
The Impossibility of Experiencing Satisfaction in the Present Moment
The components in the concrescence are thus ‘values’ contributory to the ‘satisfaction.’ The concrescence is thus the building up of a determinate ‘satisfaction,’ which constitutes the completion of the actual togetherness of the discrete components. The process of concrescence terminates with the attainment of a fully determinate ‘satisfaction’; and the creativity thereby passes over into the ‘given’ primary phase for the concrescence of other actual entities. This transcendence is thereby established when there is attainment of determinate ‘satisfaction’ completing the antecedent entity. Completion is the perishing of immediacy: ‘It never really is.‘ No actual entity can be conscious of its own satisfaction; for such knowledge would be a component in the process, and would thereby alter the satisfaction. In respect to the entity in question the satisfaction can only be considered as a creative determination, by which the objectifications of the entity beyond itself are settled. In other words, the ‘satisfaction’ of an entity can only be discussed in terms of the usefulness of that entity. It is a qualification of creativity. The tone of feeling embodied in this satisfaction passes into the world beyond, by reason of these objectifications. The world is self-creative; and the actual entity as self-creating creature passes into its immortal function of part-creator of the transcendent world. In its self-creation the actual entity is guided by its ideal of itself as individual satisfaction and as transcendent creator. The enjoyment of this ideal is the ‘subjective aim,’ by reason of which the actual entity is a determinate process. This subjective aim is not primarily intellectual; it is the lure for feeling.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28) (p. 85). Free Press. Kindle Edition.