The fundamentalists are fundamentally wrong

cropped-garnerThis post is a short extract from Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, which I’ve added to my list of recommended books.

The book is mainly about overcoming procrastination and self-sabotage (or what Pressfield calls “Resistance”). Part of this includes dumping consumerism and its associated distractions. All good stuff, but it’s not a book about Financial Independence. It’s really a book about what stops us becoming more creative and more productive.

The book touches on some big questions about human nature and our values. In one wonderful section, Pressfield compares and contrasts “fundamentalists” with “artists”.

He uses the term “fundamentalist” broadly to describe people trying to control others based on dogma.  They can include priests, politicians and ideologues in any field of human activity. They are certain that their way is the one true way.

He uses the term “artist” broadly, referring to anyone trying to create innovation or improvement including entrepreneurs, writers, dancers, students. These people are flexible and pragmatic, experimenting and learning as they go.

The point is not that one group of people are “good” and the other group is “bad”. No, the point is much more nuanced (and powerful) than that. The point is that we all have a bit of both in us. Obviously the mix between the two will be different in everyone.

The book reflects a lifetime of wisdom…so read it with an open mind…and preferably more than once.  🙂

The Escape Artist


The artist and the fundamentalist both confront the same issue, the mystery of their existence as individuals.

Each asks the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life?

At more primitive stages of evolution, humanity didn’t have to deal with such questions.  In the states of savagery, of barbarism, in nomadic culture, medieval society, in the tribe and the clan, one’s position was fixed by the commandments of the community.

It was only with the advent of modernity (starting with the ancient Greeks), with the birth of freedom and of the individual, that such matters ascended to the fore.

These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual.  We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.

The artist and the fundamentalist arise from societies at differing stages of development.

The artist is the advanced model. His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resources to permit the luxury of self-examination.  The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it. He is lucky. He was born in the right place. He has a core of self-confidence, of hope for the future. He believes in progress and evolution. His faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, towards a better world.

The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. In his view, humanity has fallen from a higher state. The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed.  The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His Prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammed or Karl Marx.

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I.

In such desparate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride. Islamic fundamentalism ascends from the same landscape of despair and possesses the same tremendous and potent appeal.

What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.  It is the state of modern life.

The fundamentalist (or more accurately, the beleagured individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction.  Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organisation are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and himself.

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance.  He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil One, seeking to seduce him from his virtue.

twin towersThe fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death.

Is it co-incidence that the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, or that they conceived of their reward as a squadron of virgin brides and the license to ravish them in the fleshpots of heaven? The fundamentalist hates and fears women because he sees them as vessels of Satan, temptresses like Delilah who seduced Samsom from his power.

To combat the call of sin, ie Resistance, the fundamentalist plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts. He loses himself in these, much as the artist does in the process of creation. The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.

The humanist believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God. This is why he values human life so highly.  In his view, things do progress, life does evolve; each individual has value, at least potentially, in advancing this cause. The fundamentalist cannot conceive of this. In his society, dissent is not just crime but apostasy; it is heresy, transgression against God Himself.

When fundamentalism wins, the world enters a dark age.  Yet still I can’t condemn one who is drawn to this philosophy. I consider my own inner journey, the advantages I’ve had of education, affluence, family support, health and the blind good luck to be born  American, and still I have learned to exist as an autonomous individual, if indeed I have, only by a whisker and at a cost I would hate to have to reckon up.

It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom. The air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breathe. Certainly I wouldn’t be writing this book, on this subject, if living with freedom were easy.

The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.

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  1. Underscored · · Reply

    Humans are individuals. Humans together form complex adaptive systems. Some people want to control the system.

  2. There is a fundamental truth in what he says there – if you get to know a big enough group of people, like 100 say, quite well at work or in some other context, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a spectrum for sure, but the majority within that bell-curve fight change. A hard-wired survival instinct is to be wary of anything new because the associated risks are unknown vs the devil you know/status quo. Different eras will favour shifts in that ratio, with uncertain or hard times riling the majority into enforcing the rules in protection of tradition, to hark back to old times that are remembered as safer.

    Being different and innovative is probably more tolerated in good times because it doesn’t threaten the resistant-to-change conservatives who feel they will be ok whatever the outcome, while those trying out new ways are only risking their own resources.

    I would agree that most people are afraid of more than a certain amount of freedom, feeling lost with the choices available and even terror at taking full responsibility for themselves. Autocracies couldn’t be ruled by such tiny elites unless said elites were enabled by the apathy of the masses accepting at least a degree of infantilisation, in return for a perception of protection and a share of the communal resources. A lot of the general population may be adult in body, but remain childlike in mind and muddle through life as best they can …..increasingly failing to cope with the increasing complexity and lack of empathy in our modern lives.

    1. “I would agree that most people are afraid of more than a certain amount of freedom, feeling lost with the choices available…”

      Hi Survivor…thanks for the comment….as thoughtful as ever. I was chatting about this recently with a friend. They were telling me that I should write more about the fear factor for people approaching FI…my response to that was that I’ve already written about that at some length. The good news is that fear fades over time as freedom becomes your new normal 🙂

  3. FI Warrior · · Reply

    Greeting to the Oracle of Surrey, recently becoming known in the papers far and wide in the UK I see, for taking the freedom struggle to The People via mass media 🙂

    Re: your comment above, I would add a fear of life after FI once there; I found I was a bit paralysed by the choices on what to do next and then confused in that it felt ungrateful to not feel liberated. You do get used to it, but it did take some mental gymnastics, starting off with asking the question: ”OK, do you want to go back to being a wage-slave?”. So I found myself starting off more defined by what I didn’t want to be doing. Choice can be a strange thing, confronted by 23 different washing powders in a supermarket, I tend to end up taking the generic one that says it will do the job I need doing; but even working that out wastes more time than it should.

    This harks back to what others and I think you too have advised those on the FI track, to try to really plan ahead as far as possible so that come the time, that adjustment to your lifestyle at each point wont seem too alien or confusing.

    1. Ha-ha…greetings my fellow FI Warrior!

      The Escape Artist has indeed been taking the struggle to The People via mass media…to the great dismay of his haters… and it will only get worse for them in 2019 😂

      This links to your point about what to do after FI…I’m NOT saying everyone should be a blogger and tv fame whore (god forbid)…but it is important to find something to do that’s fun, that challenges and engages you…and maybe even scares you a little bit?

      1. FI Warrior · · Reply

        Hey, indeed, we should challenge ourselves wherever possible to try to live a fuller life than one based on just pursuing total safety.

        Given the general uncertainty globally and particularly locally at the moment, I’d be really interested in your opinion on what we investors should do to ride out the storm. (In that we are overdue an economic crash, it being a decade after 2008 when the debt was not only not repaid, but even massively increased) I have more in cash than usual to live on for 1 – 2 years, but also worry about having too many eggs in too few baskets, but every asset class now looks vulnerable due to having been artificially inflated by all the QE. Logically then, they must pay for that when the bubbles pop.

        Can you see anything less risky, even for the shorter term to see out a recession? Even all those savings sitting in cash at the moment make me uneasy because the £ could take another big hit in a few weeks and the other major currencies don’t look reassuring either. Japan has debased its currency after years of its central bank printing money to buy its own stock and bond markets; China has printed a serious multiple of its GDP in recent years as has the US, while the Euro is a failed project that can’t be sustained without reform.

        1. Well, there’s a major market crash coming (always)…and I intend to be buying not selling when that happens. We can’t predict the market and we can’t time the market, but we can prepare

  4. sowhendidyoufinish · · Reply

    The tragedy is that some of the best minds in the world are working on glossy magazines glorifying the murder of journalists, scientists and free thinkers.

    I do wish the little green workers would go back to meaningful work. In the next decade males 30-50 are going to see the loss of jobs, meaningful or not. We all know the devil makes work for idle hands…

    Or for Tldr generation

    1. The characterisation of fundamentalist and artist reminds me of the different stages of personal development described in spiral dynamics. It does seem that in uncertain times the easy answers offered by demagogues are more appealing than taking responsibility for your own actions and destiny. What we are really lacking is strong authentic leaders and I would suggest to anyone unsure of what to do with themselves post FI is to use your escapology skills and experience to contribute back to society/the next generation as mentors or even non exec roles in charities or social enterprises. There is endless need for your skills out there!

      1. Yes, I also see a strong personal development parallel in the fundamentalist vs artist distinction. Its so easy to think that our way is the one true path, that our politics are “correct”. Fundamentalists can be found everywhere because we all have a bit of fundamentalist in us. Nurture your inner artist!

        And great points re what to do after seems naive to think you can just retire to the beach in your 40s and not be bored. Finding what to do next is another puzzle to be solved. And its win- win for society as well as for the individual.

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