We live in a society in which quantity is considered more important than quality.
According to the prevailing wisdom, the more we collectively produce, the better. We have to keep making, selling and buying more and more stuff, not because we need it but because this is good for “growth”, for “the economy”, for “jobs” and “wealth creation”.
This commercial mindset is so deeply ingrained in what is called Western civilization that it is accepted even by people who consider themselves in some way “left-wing”.
To understand why this perspective has been able to get such a hold on our society, we have to perhaps go beyond the economic and social level and look at the way in which we see reality itself.
To describe reality as a whole, of every kind and everywhere, we use the term “the universe”.
Everything that exists is, therefore, part of that overall reality, that universe.
Modern thinking does not take the existence of the universe as its starting point. Ever since Descartes declared that he thought and therefore was, our culture has been looking at things the wrong way round.
We vainly try to build up an idea of the cosmos starting from our own personal consciousness and experience, which we consider the only “provable” reality.
The holistic metaphysics of Plotinus, who declared 1,800 years ago that “the universe is one living organism” has not been very fashionable over the last few centuries.
In our mechanistic society, categories are often rejected as illusions or as evidence of a terrible heresy termed “essentialism”.
There is no such quality as “dogness”, of being a dog, it is argued. Instead, there are merely a lot of individual creatures to whom we have given the label “dog”.
There is no such thing as society, a thoroughly modern politician like Margaret Thatcher could claim. There are merely a lot of competing individuals.
There is no such thing as a living planet, just a lot of “resources” which can be divided from the whole in order to “create” a great quantity of “products” and “wealth”.
Imagine a cake. Imagine you cut the cake into eight slices. Have you just “created” the slices or simply reorganised something that already existed?
Now imagine you have cut it into 16 slices. Does the greater quantity of slices mean there is more cake or that the cake is better?
The bigger the number of slices, the smaller the size of the individual slice. This is because we are talking about division, rather than multiplication.
We are dividing the unity of the cake into eight or 16 slices, rather than multiplying one slice eight or 16 times.
The same applies when we take, for our philosophical starting point, the universe as a whole.
We place a figure “1” at the top of our page and draw a line under it. Under the line we put all the “quantity” of the objects or concepts into which this overall unity is divided.
Because we are dealing with fractions, the greater the number below the line, the smaller the individual part it denotes.
And whatever number we place below the line, the one above remains the same. All the activity of “quantity” going on below the line does not have any effect on the overall reality, which embraces and contains all the apparent multiplication of individual elements.
When we take contrasting qualities like “dark” and “light”, we are placing them below the line of the fraction.
An idea that unites these opposites, that includes “dark” and “light” within itself, is not something we “create” by combining the two concepts.
Instead it is the overall reality which we have divided into two sub-concepts. Both “dark” and “light” are ½ – half of overall reality.
The manufacture of “quantity” goes hand in hand with a way of thinking that divides reality by classifying and separating.
If we invent words to describe hundreds of different human “nationalities” we are not multiplying anything, but instead we are dividing the human species into hundreds of groups.
The more we attach labels to people to define them in terms of ethnicity, sexual preference or lifestyle choices, the more we risk losing sight of the essential insight that we are all human beings.
The more we regard other living creatures as “resources” or “investments” to be manipulated for our gain, the more we lose sight that we are fellow parts of one Gaian organic whole.
To argue that we should start from the whole rather than the parts is not to say that the parts, such as individual human beings or animals with all their different characteristics and diversities, are not important.
However, in order to understand the part, we have to see it in the context of the whole to which it belongs.
This context is not just about its relationship to the greater whole (the species, the planet) but to other parts (individuals).
An individual who understands that they are part of a whole, also understands that they are no less or more important than other parts, that they and the other parts are completely dependent on each other for their existence and survival.
The enlightened “I” sees others not as objects, but as fellow subjects, part of the same greater subject.
“They” is transformed, by this realisation, into “you and I” and then “we”.
One divided by nothing.