Kovel, Joel. HISTORY and SPIRIT: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation 1991. Beacon Press. USA.

This is a book I read and reviewed in 1991. I recently re-read it and still find it to be an important and profound work that confronts me with many questions about my journey through life and the society I live in.

History is a concept we can all understand, even though it has shades of meaning. Spirit and spirituality are difficult terms, used loosely in many ways, so Kovel is careful to start the book with his own definitions: spirit, “what happens to us at the as the boundaries of self give way. Or we could say that it is about the ´soul,´ by which we shall mean the form of ´being´ taken by the spiritual self. And it is about ´spirituality,´ which we may define as the ways people seek to realize spirit in their lives.” For me, it is the search for and fulfillment of purpose and meaning that goes beyond the limits of individual life and consciousness.

On the other hand I can completely accept as Kovel´s view that, “despiritualization occurs at the arrival of technocracy, the deadening of nature and he loss of the sacred, and the breaking up of organic wholes into isolated fragments.” These are themes that Kovel returns to in his later books on Zionism and nature. His is a consistently integrated vision of interconnected life, spirit, community and nature.

Kovel describes the lack of a spiritual essence in our society as it encompasses both individualism and loss of community, but there is more, behind these “systemic forces at work selecting for ruthlessness, greed and self-aggrandization.” He says, “… it is capitalism which remains spirit´s greatest antagonist.” He goes on to define capitalism as more than a market society or one that encourages innovative enterprise. He says that, “… it means that the capitalist mode of production displaces the core of human activity from human beings to things.”

He recognizes that the search for spirituality is still an important part of human existence, for some it lies in organized religion; for others in a private spirituality. But Kovel believes that, unless a sense of spirit pervades every part of our lives from our personal relationship, to our community lives, our work and our politics, spirituality will be isolated and unfulfilled.

The authentic spirit is inseparable from human nature. When we declare human nature to be cruel or selfish, we often say, “You can´t kill the spirit.” Kovel says this is “to indicate the immortal, transcendent character of human spirit.” He goes on to write that he thinks it is profoundly wrong to oppose human spirit to nature; for him human spirit is an indivisible part of human nature and our connection to all life.

He devotes much of the book to his philosophical exploration of spirit in human desires, politics, philosophy and psychology – hard to synopsise, but fascinating to read and experience the breadth of his passionate intellect.

He ends by telling us that, the universe is too big, after all, to be translated into any kind of package or formula. We are all fragments nothing against the infinite unity of Universal Being. Yet, despite this unsurpassable truth, the soul´s destiny is to be a warrior – for justice, for truth, for nonviolence, for love, for solidarity, for all the manifestations of being – to be warrior, moreover, whose struggle need have no victory.

This is a brief description rather than a review of a complex, many-layered work; I read it with care and reflection; I urge other readers to do the same.

Filed under Book Reviews, Joel Kovel