Hello Mr. Marshall!
I have been a reader of your blog for quite a while now, and I decided it's time to try to connect with you. I am very impressed by the quality of your blog posts and I enjoy reading them daily. And I am aware that you don't have much time for reading emails lately (which is good, people reach out to you and they should reach out. It is great that you offer yourself like this!), so I'll try to keep my first email brief.
I am starting to grow an interest in existentialism, religious and spiritual philosophy. Since I'm just starting this field I would like to start off with the right material, so I was wondering if you could recommend me some books or other material on these subjects?
Of course I completely understand if you don't have time for it, or if this email flies right into the trash folder - some things are not meant to be.
In any case, I wish you kind regards.
Thank you for the kind words, and I'm glad you like the blog. Before I answer your questions, allow me to make a clarification - I absolutely have time to read my email and answer queries. I take great pleasure in making myself useful and serving people, I learn a lot from it, and I try to spend my entertainment time in serving strong and virtuous people rather than screwing off with distraction. So, thanks for the email and yes, everyone keep them coming.
Existentialism, religious, and spiritual philosophy, eh?
In terms of existentialism, I have a few thoughts. I'd recommend you read Kierkegaard and Nietzsche at the same time. Nietzsche is good, really good stuff, except he can be really unnecessarily nasty. I guess that's the price you pay for completely breaking from convention - you've got to steel your will and know that people are going to violently oppose you. So Nietzsche is good, but some of his... hmm... venom?... is really counterproductive. Kierkegaard is a nice remedy to that, who is generally a nicer and friendlier existentialist. Also, I'm a significant believer in duty, and I think Kierkegaard's philosophy of moving into more dutiful and meaningful life - is fantastic.
Now, a quick warning before you get started. It's easy to read the arguments one lucid thinker makes, and accept them on balance, and thus be strongly colored by that school of thought for a while. I'd recommend against that, until you have a more developed philosophy and code for yourself. I guess I'd advise the best way to learn philosophy would to be take some advice, say, "That's interesting, maybe there's something to it", and kind of put it in its own box for a while, not let into all of your thoughts. Then periodically you open the box, examine what's going on from that philosophical perspective, and then put the philosophy back in the box. If you're consistently getting good results from the philosophy and it jives with your overall sense of ethics and purpose, then maybe you eventually let it out of the box entirely, and it becomes part of who you are.
But start with it in the box. You're talking about reading some very strong, strong stuff. The most prominent works of philosophy and spirituality, by definition, have proven very very good at spreading and getting into someone's mind. But often there's flaws you can't see when you're in the philosophy. So, keep it in a mental box for a while. Take it out, play with it, try it on, put it back. Do this repeatedly, and stay active-minded and critical until you've tested the philosophy and its counter-points and criticisms from a whole lot of perspectives. If it stands up after a lot of checking it out, then make it your own. But don't make it your own before you thoroughly check it out.
Okay, let's get into religion and spirituality.
Since you can get general advice on learning about religion and spirituality almost anywhere, I'll skip the basic general advice and give you something of a different perspective.
First and foremost, I believe you can't understand a the spiritual and religious aspects of a religion without understanding its temporal and worldly aspects. By that, I mean the history of the religion, how it spread, the various leaders, the organizational structure through history, and so on. What factions supported the religion, what factions persecuted, where were there divides and controversies within the religion, and so on? When were places converted by conquest, when were they converted by trade and long term exposure, and so on.
I don't believe you can fully separate the spiritual dynamics of a religion from its temporal aspects.
Before studying the religious/mystical aspects, I'd recommend you study the role of religion in society. See, I have a strange mix of friends and colleagues. I have some very devout religious friends (which jives well with my standards of duty, self-perfection, service, strength, conviction, taking action, etc. - traditional religious people are often good at these things) - and then, I also have a lot of athiest/agnostic friends, because I also hang out in very, very modern social circles who pride themselves on hyper-rationality.
How is that gap bridged? Most people can't do it. I have friends that are devout - like, hardcore devout - in various faiths, and I get along with them. I have friends that are hardcore, hardline athiests. And I'm very friendly with both.
Believe it or not, there's actually a common ground where these people can meet. That is, the role of organized religion in society.
I'm personally a huge believer in organized religion - most people need something along the lines of a religion. In absence of organized religion, you get DIS-organized religion. Disorganized religions have all the downsides of organized religion, with very little of the upside.
S, you sound like the kind of guy that can research, strive, examine, think, brainstorm, and scratch and claw your way towards having a uniquely developed, cohesive, powerful set of ethics.
Most people can't, and don't want to do that. It's a lot of work, and it leads to a lot of doubt and confusion and then no one understands you. Having your own ethics is lonely. Very lonely.
Organized religion lays out a standard of conduct where everyone gets a loose belief structure, set of expected conduct, and a group of people they can associate with who they know shares the same standard loose belief structure and set of conduct.
And y'know, for all the shit people give religion, most religions do okay. Even the nastier religions get things like 80% correct. I'm serious - they really do get 80% correct.
People attribute war to religion, for instance, but I think they've got it backwards. Humans, by nature, are kind of violent and warlike. Then they justify their violence and warlike behavior however is convenient. Religion can be a convenient justification. But in absence of organized religion, you still get violence and war. Genghis Khan and Alexander and Shaka didn't have any organized religion, and it didn't slow them down at all... later on, with the rise of dominant religions, people start declaring wars in the name of God. But it's not quite right to pin that on the religion itself.
I say this, because people attribute things like discrimination or war to religion, but I think that's mistaken. We naturally draw lines as humans, and support the people on our side of the line. Sure, religious groups often promote themselves at the expense of other groups. But so do trade organizations, national organizations, race-based organizations, and so on, and so on. Humans naturally divide themselves into groups, support people in their group, and oppose people outside of it.
So I'd say, even the worst implementations of religion tend to get 80% of things correct. They all pretty much say don't steal, don't kill, do charitable and good deeds, be hospitable, purify and master yourself, serve and do good works...
If you belong to an organized religion, you know how people are generally expected to act, you know it's pretty good, and you know everyone's consistent about it. You have some people that you know are going to back you up if times get tough, and you've got common ground to connect on and work together, socialize together, and build families together.
Y'know, a hardcore athiest that focuses on the mystical side of religion and says it's ridiculous is kind of missing the point. Organized religion greatly simplifies people's lives by giving them a reasonably good belief structure and standardizing a large group of people's customs, culture, and expected conduct. It makes life easier and allows for strong connections and alliances and agreements.
When you dive into learning about religion, don't forget about the standardization of conduct, custom, and the group dynamics. This is the strongest and most important role of religion.
I think when you understand that role, a lot of the spiritual elements and rituals and mystical elements make a lot more sense.
Now, I don't think the spiritual/mystical side of religion can be separated from the temporal/worldly side of it. The temporal/worldly side of it explains how the religion traveled, what cultures influenced it, what traditions became adopted as part of the religion, what customs were mandatory, what customs are not mandatory but fairly standard...
I've read excerpts, sometimes large parts, of most of the various holy books and texts. I've read analysis of them as well. There's value in studying them directly, but I'd probably recommend you start by studying the main people and organizations who spread the religion. Religions often take on "personality characteristics" of the individuals and groups who spread it. All of the major religions these days are quite complex and have many possible interpretations - when you understand which missionary, military leader, statesman, merchant group, religious order, or other person or faction spread the religion - then you can start to understand much more about what elements of the faith became dominant.
Whichever faiths and traditions interest you, I'd look to their most prolific builders, spreaders, and advocates. You'll see their "personality" became part of the defining of what aspects of the religion to emphasize. Wikipedia does a pretty good job overviewing the key people in a religion's spread - look up the religion's page, follow to the pages of leaders who seem significant and read up on them.
As for my personal philosophy and spirituality, I got it from a lot of different places. While you're here, I should probably point you to Confucianism and Bushido, both of which had an impact on me and both of which are somewhat rare these days. To that end, you might study some Chinese history and Japanese history. Confucious and Mencius both said a lot of smart things, but it's probably too much to start with... too alien from what anyone in the West believes today. Instead, you might start with the samurai codes of bushido - the Budoshoshinshu, Musashi's Go Rin No Sho (Book of Five Rings), Yamamoto Tsunemoto's Hagakure, and perhaps a good mix of classical and contemporary Japanese historical fiction. Eiji Yoshikawa did pretty well with "Musashi" and "Taiko", for the historically-fiction inclined. Also, "Musashi" is my absolute favorite book in the whole world. You won't go wrong reading it.
You'll note that Eastern culture generally has much stronger emphasis on duty and role than Western culture. I, too, have a stronger emphasis on duty and role than most people I know, and it surprises people. It's really not normal in the West.
I imagine you'll get exposed to the various Western philosophy, spirituality, and various canons naturally, but I'd recommend also reading some samurai-era historical fiction, moving to samurai philosophy and culture, and then moving backwards through history back to Mencius and Confucious. It should be interesting, anyways - you'll get a perspective that very few people have. But also do study the various Western traditions and canons - I've gotten quite a lot from those as well.
Very good questions, and thanks for dropping a line. Your experiences in the comments, dear reader?