Why We Write

We know, of course, that there are “keyboard warriors” and hacks. Blogs have become more sensationalist than the newspapers we believed they would replace. (How many blog headlines have you seen lately, promising that if you click to the article it will “shock you,” “move you to tears,” “leave you breathless,” and so on?) Sensationalist articles and headlines are written solely to get websites higher in Google’s search results.

To be clear, we are not discussing writing in relation to such mundane considerations. We are discussing writing as a spiritual act.

Most, if not all, cultures writing has occupied a special place, with its invention ascribed to a particular deity (e.g., Odin, Thoth). Of course, at this point in a society’s development, we are not talking about literature, per se. As among the pre-Christian Germanic tribes, writing may be used for short inscriptions, messages, and — we cannot ignore — occult spells.

The Warrior-Scholar:

In more developed cultures, writing (initiatic writing at least) is concerned with philosophy, theology, and poetry, etc., and although we may forget, in many classical cultures, writing was one of the arts, not only of the scholar, but of the warrior.

In regard to European mythology, notably, Odin is both the god that will lead the battle against evil at the end of time, and the god that discovered the runes (regarded both as letters and symbols). Historically, renowned warriors have often been great poets. To mention only two warriors who practiced a literary art: Egill Skallagrímsson (904-995 CE), born in Iceland during the “Viking-Age,” was celebrated both as a warrior and as a poet, and, in Japan, the famed Samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi practiced calligraphy.

Musashi claimed that the principles underlying the different “Ways” were essentially the same, so that the swordsman could understand painting, and the painter the use of the sword more easily than those with no art.

Better still, for us and for each generation, the higher type of man should practice various arts and disciplines, both of peace and war, and should cultivate himself through them, freeing himself from the illusions of popular opinion, and aligning himself with the “Way” (Tao). As an example of this type of structure in learning, in Confucianism we find the education of the “six arts,” which include those of the warrior (archery and chariot riding) and the scholar (calligraphy and music).

Sincerity:

“Sincerity,” the Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, “is the key to self-knowledge and to be sincere with oneself brings great suffering.” Gurdjieff is correct, of course, that sincerity is essential to self-knowledge, and, just as importantly, to understanding what is outside, in the world, and underlying its activity.

I do not, think, however, that this means suffering. All people experience suffering, and ignorance — and insincerity with oneself — is often the cause. Indeed, sincerity is one of the Confucian virtues (the others being benevolence, righteousness, decorum, wisdom, and trustworthiness), embodying the principle of human nature in its highest sense.

In his introduction to the Samurai manual The Hagakure, William Scott Wilson quotes Confucian text The Doctrine of the Mean, which states:

If there is sincerity, there will be enlightenment; if there is enlightenment, there will be sincerity.

And:

Sincerity… is the means by which all things are completed. As the self is completed, there is human-heartedness. As things are completed, there is wisdom. This is the virtue of one’s character, and the Way of joining the internal and external.

Initiation:

Sincerity must, of course, be practiced in our arts, if it is to lead us to a higher understanding. If it is practiced alongside the cultivation of other arts, writing is, or should be, part of a greater initiation — into what, of course, we cannot know up front. Yet, through it, and through the other arts — the martial, for example — we are able to delve deeply into the Nature of the outer world, and into the inner experience, to discover a new self — free from small-minded pressures and concerns, such as popularity — that connects the two.

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