Modernity As Purgatory


The last part of Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s exposition of Quran 1:1-7 caught my eye–specifically, Quran 1:5-7:

Guide us [Lord] upon the straight path, / the path of those on whom Thy Grace is, / not those on whom Thine anger is, nor those who are astray.

Reading the final three lines, Nasr comments on the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human life:

Our existential situation can be further clarified by recourse to geometrical symbolism. We are situated at the point of the intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes of a cross. We have a choice to ascend the vertical axis and be among those “on whom Thy Grace is,” or to descend on the same axis into ever lower states of being as one of those “on whom Thine anger is” [cf. Mahayana Buddhism’s six realms of existence–in particular, those of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell denizens]. Finally, we can wander along the horizontal line of the cross among “those who go astray.” Eschatologically these three possibilities correspond from a certain perspective to the paradisal, infernal, and purgatorial states.

The Garden of Truth, p. 19.

Over the years I’ve been philosophizing largely with Westerners, I’ve discovered that most, when we begin, are in the purgatorial state. If I were to generalize, I would say that many Westerners are presently living in purgatory.


A brief sketch of modern-day purgatory would argue that it consists of (i) the primacy of the rational mind, (ii) the dominant mode of this rational mind being skepticism, (iii) de facto secularism, and (iv) de facto materialism.

I. The Primacy of the Rational Mind

In Be Here Now (1971), Ram Dass makes explicit the post-German Enlightenment scientific materialist mistake: this is to take the rational mind to be the primary faculty of the human soul. Doing so, however, breeds hyperintellectualism, which ever seeking never rests. The rational mind, if and when it becomes hegemonic, “can’t get no satisfaction,” yet such is precisely, endlessly, futilely what it aims at. In fact, Hegel’s critique of Descartes still stands: Descartes longed for an indubitable rational foundation, and this longing was born of “the fear of error.” 

It’s not hard to see that what motivates the primacy of the rational mind is a certain primordial anxiety for certainty. Yet what ensues for the rational mind in its various ventures are not certitudes but vacillations and probabilities. Thus, without the primacy of the heart, the heart-mind, or faith, the rational mind founders, flails, and, without admitting as much, fails.

Observe carefully the contrast: a major theme in nondual metaphysics (also known as panentheism–e.g., Zen, Chan, Daoism, Sufism, Christian mysticism, etc.) is that the heart is the way to God, or Dao, while the rational mind is nothing but a servant. Rumi, for instance, follows the Sufi tradition in arguing for the “limitations of reason” seen over and against the power of “gnosis.” Gnosis refers to the intuitive, unitive, immediate knowledge, especially of the divine, a knowledge that is only accessible to the heart.

Where the heart is intuitive and unitive, reason is analytical and discriminatory (i.e., this set over and against that, etc.). The heart is truly certain whereas reason is very often inconclusive, probabilistic. 

The point at hand? To place the heart first and to allow reason to be a servant–a proper one–of the heart. To reject the possibility of the heart, as moderns have done, and to put the rational mind first is to exist–and (mark this) to remain–in a state of purgatory.

II. Modern Skepticism

The commonest mode of the rational mind is modern skepticism: doubting, nitpicking, “on the other hand-ing,” and the like. Any proposition can be met with a yes, but. A promising proposal isn’t shot down so much as it is slowly eroded through the corrosive power of doubting. The soul, thereby, gets whittled down and away.

Modern skepticism with hold one in purgatory, and so long as one remains married to this mode of skepticism, just so long will one be lost in–and to–this no man’s land. It could be said, in brief, that modern skepticism is demonic.

III. De Facto Secularism

While secularism can be defined in myriad ways, I’d like to speak of it, here, in terms of the rejection out of hand of any idea of transcendence. Hence, Nasr’s symbol of the Y-axis is nullified from the outset: there is, so secularists posit, no vertical axis and thus there is no ultimate question here. “From ash to ash, dust to dust” is distorted and misread from the perspective of an unimaginative literal mind.

But if there is no vertical dimension, then how can we do otherwise than default to some version–faulty, to be sure–of existentialism’s bearing up ‘courageously’ to the allegedly vast, meaningless, cold universe? Frankly, I don’t understand secular atheists who speak, without irony, of “the afterlife” of those who die: their afterlife is only in “our memories.” Nonsense! Our memories fade too–and as swiftly. 

I’d call secularism a dead end were it not for the fact that it’s worse: it’s purgatory masquerading as a bald truth. 

IV. De Facto Materialism

What goes hand in hand with de facto secularism is de facto materialism: the stuff of which everything, and thus all beings, is made is matter. There is nothing non-physical in this ontology; the reduction base is precisely matter.

Consequently, while de facto secularism nullifies any idea of the transcendent, de facto materialism assures us that only a certain kind of X-axis–a material one–exists. It’s for this reason that I hear conversation partners speak often of life being “a slog,” an endless slog at that. 


One shall dwell in purgatory so long as one adheres unquestionably to the primacy of the rational mind, modern skepticism, de facto secularism, and de facto materialism. Yet should one question even one of these orientations, then the whole thing cannot help but come crashing down. And then The Path can unfold…