Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism by Brad Spurgeon (Michael Butterworth: 2017):
For anyone familiar with the work of Colin Wilson the term ‘self-help’ – at least in its popularly understood definition, denoting popular books on weight loss and confidence, and so on – may seem too passive to describe the stature of a writer who regularly tackled such huge philosophical systems as phenomenology, and, in so doing, erected a new counterblast against the pessimistic assumptions of 20th century philosophy. Namely the existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
Now, I say this, of course, without reservations for the self-help market; simply that it has such connotations when bought up when discussing philosophy. If this helpful literature improves one’s life for the good, it matters little in what form it takes. Indeed, for many, the thought of applying a populist term such as ‘self-help’ to the works of this philosophical revolutionary would be to underestimate such great works as The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, and his excellent overview of all things evolutionary in books like The Occult and the mammoth A Criminal History of Mankind.
And yet, at its core, Wilson’s philosophy is profoundly helpful to us all. It is self-help in its truest sense.
Wilson, in all his works, wrote in an accessible style and thus provided for many invaluable introductions to notoriously challenging and arcane subjects as existentialism, the occult, crime, psychology and even wine! One might say that that in itself provides all the groundwork necessary for anyone to begin to help themselves. But, of course, there is an implicit recognition in all of Wilson’s work which, when all is said and done, is an impassioned call for people to take charge of their own minds – and therefore their own lives – and to better themselves in spite of a culture that seems hell-bent on negativity.
This essay serves three purposes. Firstly it aims to recognise the practical and beneficial elements of Wilson’s philosophy and just how, moreover, his work provides a deeply enriching and intelligent philosophical foundation for a life more abundant. Secondly it serves as a series of reflections on Brad Spurgeon’s recently republished second-edition of Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, which provided this essay with the inspiration and insight into the great philosopher’s work as a valuable tool for navigating our troubled times – both on a personal level as well as in the larger context of our cultural zeitgeist. And thirdly it is an attempt to understand how, in integrating Wilson’s unique brand of phenomenological existentialism into our own lives, we have a form of self-help with foundations both deep and with truly effective principles. Combining these we may recongise the self-developmental ideas implicit in Wilson’s philosophy provide an intellectual robustness that far exceeds much of what we understand as self-help literature today.
With the second-edition of Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism many readers who are unacquainted with his work have an excellent opportunity to become familiar with both the man himself and his essential philosophical ideas. As the book is composed of a lengthy interview conducted by Brad Spurgeon and divided into two parts, the reader is presented with an easily digestible précis of Wilson’s optimistic brand of ‘new existentialism’. The book provides a part biography and a reflection upon his life’s work and its possible implications for the future. Included in Spurgeon’s book is perhaps one of Wilson’s most boldly optimistic and far reaching speculations on the future of mankind’s psychology, and presents a case for what the biologist T.H. Huxley saw as our destiny – as the directors of our own evolution rather than passively drifting in the laws natural selection. The evolution of consciousness, after all, requires consciousness to become more active in its own participation with the natural world. Consciousness is, effectively, nature that is aware of it itself.
Indeed, Philosophy of Optimism’s appendices offer much food for thought, and the aptly titled ‘Article for ‘Big Idea’’ provides an example of Wilson’s impressive ability to intuit potentially world-changing developments in a variety of fields.
What’s more is that Spurgeon himself frames Wilson’s philosophy in a moving and uniquely insightful preface, for we are presented with a remarkable context in which Wilson’s optimistic philosophy has proved itself to be profoundly practical and authentic in dealing with life’s most severe and challenging tests. Spurgeon, undergoing a difficult time in his own life while editing and preparing the first-edition of this book for the publisher (Michael Butterworth), indeed found the whole project deeply significant, and one in which he treated the contents contained therein as “a self-help book, as a desperately needed medicine that would help me cope” (2017: xv.). For Spurgeon there is no doubt that the values of Wilson’s powerfully argued defence of an optimistic frame of mind proved themselves to be profound in those moments when reassurances for the sake of our faith and motivation are truly needed.
Not only is Philosophy of Optimism an excellent and accessible introduction, or an invaluable contribution to Wilson’s enormous body of work, it is also a book which places Wilson’s own contribution – as a writer of ideas and as a remarkable human being – into a variety of important important contexts.
At the beginning Spurgeon describes the genesis of the book as being a way to “counter the crap” of Wilson’s too often uninformed and lazy critics. This was in the wake of much undeserved and negatively biased reviews of his excellent and culturally significant autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose. Deciding that it was time to meet his literary hero in person, Spurgeon set out to interview the author at his home in Gorran Haven, Cornwall. This, of course, resulted in the interview that makes up the bulk of Philosopher of Optimism. By presenting Wilson in the form of a long interview Spurgeon has provided a unique opportunity to see the philosopher in his true context – as an authoritative and commanding visionary of a truly substantial philosophy of optimism.
By discussing this important book’s purpose as well as its life-affirming qualities as a tool to overcome pessimism, we are able to place it in its deserving places as a truly valuable contribution towards our understanding of mental and spiritual wellbeing. Indeed, Wilson’s insights into the phenomenology of consciousness, and the intentional mechanisms which allow an increased access to meaning and purpose, were appreciated by none other than the psychologist Abraham Maslow. It was Maslow who first decided to study the psychology of health rather than focusing, like many psychologists before him, on the varieties of mental ill-health. Rather Maslow sought to define the qualities of the very healthiest people he could find, and from there go on develop a general theory of mental healthiness.
This unique approach has resulted in more recent times in a positive psychology movement which has been packaged for mass-consumption in the less academic sphere of self-help bestsellers. Indeed, there is also the American New Thought movement along with what is called “positive-mind metaphysics” which are, in their own right, crucial players in the development of the great nation’s collective psyche. For a general overview of the history of positive thinking, I’d recommend the historian Mitch Horowitz’s book on the subject, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.
Now, it was this mutual appreciation between Maslow and Wilson that provided him with the intellectual recognition, as well as the vocabulary, to strengthen and verify his intuition that heightened states of consciousness were not mere lapses in mental health, or illusions, but on the contrary these ‘peak experiences’, as Maslow called them, were rather states in which individuals recognised that their lives were truly and wonderfully meaningful. Indeed, Wilson described peak experiences as those moments in which “you see things which are true but which one doesn’t notice normally because one’s so mechanical.” (2017: 19). Furthermore, these peak experiences are the hallmark of individuals who were psychologically healthy, therefore corroborating with many accounts which recognise a truly authentic meaningfulness at the heart of human existence.
However whereas Maslow identified this trait in the healthiest amongst us, he nevertheless felt that the experience itself was fundamentally impossible to replicate by will or effort. In a sense this is quite ironic, for what happens in these states of buoyant consciousness is precisely the recognition that the mind itself has extraordinary powers – indeed, that it is causative in a very significant sense. Wilson felt that, on this issue, Maslow sold human nature short. For Wilson the peak experience could be achieved by will-power, and yet it required the basic recognition that human consciousness is intentional, that is, it reaches out and grabs meaning – and when the intentional muscles are flabby and undisciplined, as in states of boredom or depression, then we cease to make the mental effort to reach out and grip the objective meanings all around us.
This wasn’t just an intellectual dispute on Wilson’s part, for it seemed to him that Maslow’s sense that the peak experience was a happenstance event failed to take into account many such experiences which were directly invoked by conscious effort. Wilson, like many others, particularly in the New Thought movement and mystics before them, believed that the mind is essentially causative – that the mind directly causes change in the outer-world just as much as it can change its own inner-world. In other words, the mind can, quite consciously, elevate itself into a state in which it can achieve these flashes of peak experience at will.
It was precisely this recognition of the active quality of consciousness which enabled Wilson to rise out of his working-class, Leicestershire background and discipline himself to become a full-time writer. Fond of quoting H.G. Well’s Mr. Polly, Wilson himself represented his crucial ethic of self-development: “If you don’t like your life, you can change it.” This, of course, is the fundamental belief that drives the self-help market.
And yet there is something within us that prevents human consciousness from accessing these higher-states, for after all, these peak experiences would be far more common place, and a most frequent state of mind for all of us. Wilson understood, however, that without understanding the phenomenology of the restrictive mechanisms within consciousness, we would not be in a position to overcome our own inner-limitations. His own recognition of this is present in his first book, The Outsider, in which he discussed the work of the Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, who arguably more than any other philosopher before him challenged man’s mental and physical mechanicalness. When, around 1952, Wilson first read about Gurdjieff, he immediately realized that he “was quite obviously one of the greatest minds I had ever encountered” (2004: 53). Although at times severe, Gurdjieff’s essential recognition is that man, if he understands himself fully, can bypass his limitations and gain a degree of self-mastery that would enable him to develop into a sort of superman.
Wilson immediately recognised in Gurdjieff a profound psychologist who understood man almost as well as an experienced mechanic understands cars. Indeed, Wilson would later call this mechanical part of ourselves the ‘robot’. His recent biographer, Gary Lachman, even titled his book on Wilson’s life and work, Beyond the Robot.
Like Mr. Polly states, we can change our lives, but first, Gurdjieff would reply, we must identify those parts in ourselves that inhibit or prevent that change to occur, and then we must develop a higher, more integrated, identity in which we can take full command of ourselves, and thus, our own lives. Where Wilson differs from Gurdjieff is in the belief that we require a special ‘school’ in which “one who knows” can solely can bestow upon us this knowledge. Instead, Wilson believed, we could go just as far with our development with a degree of self-discipline and phenomenological vigilance over our moods and, as a result, observing how they affect our corresponding assumptions about reality. (This, effectively, summarises his criticisms of the existentialists, for it is this understanding of phenomenology that Wilson believed they overlooked.)
In his 1978 book, Mysteries, he presents his own unique theory of a ‘ladder of selves’. Again, we may admire Wilson’s commitment to providing extremely useful tools for self-development for this, as we shall see, is as an extraordinary self-help model as I have yet come across. Also, it benefits the reader to refer to the useful appendix in Philosopher of Optimism, in which Wilson provides a brief outline of what he calls ‘The Seven Levels of Consciousness.’
Complimenting Gurdjieff’s system as well as owing a degree of credit to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the ladder of selves provides an insightful metaphor for a variety of states of consciousness, and particularly in their capacity for grasping meaning. The further one ventures up the ladder, the increasingly integrated do these ‘selves’ become. It is, at this point, we should attempt to define just what these ‘selves’ – or what Gurdjieff called our internally separated ‘I’s – are, and precisely what parts of our psyches they represent. For one such poignant example we can turn to an event in Wilson’s own life in which he realized this reality at a crucial moment.
After leaving school at the age of sixteen Wilson undertook a series of menial laboring jobs, one of which was working in a wool factory. Due to his relatively poor working-class background university was out of the question, and with his dad working in the boot and shoe trade, and earning such a small amount, he was required to work extra hours as a barman in the evenings. Wilson, along with his brothers, were expected to earn their keep.
The young Colin’s dream had always been to become a scientist of momentous importance; he even modeled himself on becoming “Einstein’s successor”! In contrast to this dream Wilson’s work-a-day existence in these mundane and repetitive jobs must have been a bitter reminder of his social position, and may even have discouraged him altogether had he not been offered a job as a lab assistant by his old headmaster. Curiously, by this point, he had started to develop two conflicting selves – Wilson-the-scientist was fast becoming eclipsed by Wilson-the-Romantic, lover of poetry. Although he was relieved to start work as a lab assistant he had, nevertheless, been devouring so much poetry that science, by contrast, seemed to him far too detached from the real questions concerning human existence – and, of course, existence as a whole: why is there something rather than nothing?
Discouraged by the vast disparity between this rich inner-world of imagination and the grim and dull reality of suffering jobs he detested, he decided that he would give ‘God back his entrance ticket’. He would commit suicide.
There were two selves at war within Wilson – and two versions of reality itself were at odds one another. Yet the gloomy teenage nihilist seemed to be taking the upper-hand, pushing aside his other ‘self’. Life for the romantic nihilist was a joke of repetition and humiliation, and he wasn’t going to sit through life and accept misery and defeat. He’d simply end it. In a sense it truly was Wilson’s romantic ‘self’ that was in revolt, for he realized later on that this was the problem of so many of the 19th Century writers, artists and poets. As he says in the interview with Spurgeon, “Rejecting everyday life and its boring triviality meant they were, in a sense, choosing death.” (2017: 7).
Arriving late at the laboratory he had resolved in himself to take down a bottle of hydrocyanic acid and proceed to take a swig of the lethal liquid. However, once he took down the bottle and received a blast of its acrid smell, he suddenly saw that he had become two people. He describes how he “was suddenly conscious of this teenage idiot called Colin Wilson, with his misery and frustration, and he seemed such a limited fool that I could not have cared less whether he killed himself or not. But if he killed himself, he would kill me too.” This other ‘me’ he refers to is the real Colin Wilson – the very same one that would go on to have a prolific writing career beginning with the world-shaking publication of The Outsider in 1956.
No doubt this intense division in himself, compounded by the life-saving flash of insight influenced Wilson’s subsequent attitude to life. Indeed, in his autobiography he mentions Marilyn Ferguson’s belief that all great originators in philosophy and literature and the arts must undergo, at some point in their lives, a serious consideration of suicide. Wilson believes that in these darkest moments one looks into the abyss, and this results in a sort of inner-alchemy in which the ‘real self’ separates from “the inessential self, which is like being reborn.” In this profound shift from a lower self to a much higher self which “glimpsed the marvelous, immense richness of reality, extending to distant horizons,” Wilson ascended up the ladder of selves until there, at the top, was the real ‘I’ who had far more authority and will-power than the robotic, meaning-starved self that had decided that life just wasn’t worth the effort.
In Philosopher of Optimism Wilson references Gurdjieff’s notion of what he called ‘essence’, that which is precisely that part of the individual which is most internally consistent with itself, and not as flighty and transient as the ‘personality’, which can change in a moment’s notice. This essence is crystalised through hard work and inner self-discipline; Gurdjieff called these efforts a form of ‘intentional suffering’ which strengthens the essential aspect in man. This essence is a high-level of inner integration, in which the higher aspect of our psyche has fully bought together the warring factions of our many conflicting impulses. “Essence”, said Gurdjieff, “has more chances of development in men who live . . . in difficult conditions of constant struggle and danger.” (2001: 162) In other words essence develops when our habitual, robotic consciousness is placed into abeyance and a higher self is forced to take over, particularly in crisis situations, or indeed, in moments of almost ecstatic happiness as with the peak experience. These moments generate a sense of inner solidity which stands firm, thus providing us with a reliable ballast for our will in the turbulent and unpredictable terrain of existence.
In the interview with Spurgeon Wilson indeed acknowledges that he had deliberately throughout his life aimed “to reach higher states of consciousness – or simple emotional stability and the state of productive optimism – through the natural methods of work, outlook, discipline and relationships.” (2017: 24) In fact, this inner stability is the development of a strong sense of purpose which Wilson embodied throughout his life despite many set-backs, attacks from critics and moments of near disastrous financial ruin.
Looking back on Wilson’s career – years after his death in 2013 – we can with confidence say that he was a truly a philosopher who developed this essence, and who, moreover, truly embodied and lived by his own philosophy of will-power and driving purpose. And perhaps, as he says in a short video excerpt with Spurgeon, it is precisely this general sense of cheerfulness that annoys and aggravates his critics so much, for after all, such optimism is generally unfashionable in our postmodern world.
Philosophy of Optimism offers an antidote and valuable guide to developing an essential part of our own being in these times of great uncertainty.
Outlined above is a very brief account of some of Wilson’s most practical and insightful truths, often hard won, into the human condition. All of Wilson’s work relates to one another, and with over a hundred books, they all, in their own unique ways, enlighten the shadowy regions of our individual as well as collective consciousness. By addressing as many subjects has he did – from crime to mysticism; wine to music; psychology and ancient mysteries – he has consistently broadened our reasons to wonder and marvel at the incredible richness of existence. By reminding us of this fact he achieved what he set out to do in his earlier philosophical works in the inter-connected ‘Outsider Cycle’, by providing a remedy for our all-too-common ‘life devaluation’ by instilling in us a phenomenological vigilance that enables us to recognise that the “fundamental premise of our lives [is] that the world of beauty and intensity has a real existence” (1966: 113).
With Philosopher of Optimism, Brad Spurgeon has provided a unique opportunity to perceive Wilson’s legacy from a ‘birds-eye view’. And by arguing his case for Wilson’s overdue recognition and reevaluation as an important cultural figure in his own right, as well as being a turning point in intellectual history as the first substantial philosopher of optimism, we have a concise book which presents, in Wilson’s own words, the interrelated, multifaceted oeuvre in which revolved around a single and admirable ethic. This ethic may well be called a will to help people develop in themselves a faculty which strengthens him or herself against the travails of life. In a word, self-help. Thus he presented a philosophy that facilitates the deep and substantial recognition in ourselves that we have the inner-resources necessary to succeed, thrive, develop and ultimately evolve, not just as individuals, but as an entire species.
We may say, then, that the term ‘self-help’ with which I began this essay, rightfully applies to Wilson’s body of work. All of Wilson’s insights into the human condition followed from his original, childhood dream of becoming an important scientist, for by analyzing his own inner-states he subjected himself to the ultimate test of life itself; offering himself as the supreme subject in the experiment of experience. And in so doing, he found that the meaning of life resounded in an affirmative and ecstatic yes.
From The Outsider to his last book, Super Consciousness, Wilson provided the philosophical framework necessary for our voyage into a life. Our minds, galvinized by this recognition of the objective reality of meaning, provides our imagination the power to ignite the fuel of our experience – and thus the transmutation of our implicit potentialities into living actualities.
This, I believe, is the ultimate proof behind anything that purports itself to be self-help in contemporary culture.
Horowitz, M. (2014) One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. New York, Crown Publishing Group.
Lachman, G. (2016) Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. New York, Tarcher Perigee.
Ouspensky, P.D. (2001) In Search of the Miraculous. London, Harcourt Inc.
Spurgeon, B. (2017) Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Manchester, Michael Butterworth.
Wilson, C. (1966) Introduction to the New Existentialism. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Wilson, C. (1985) The Essential Colin Wilson. London, HARRAP LIMITED.
Wilson, C. (2004) Dreaming to Some Purpose. London, Arrow Books Limited.