Beyond Political Theology: “Mysteries” of the Way and Its Power
A few weeks back, Joel Dietz had a guest post on mysticism. Here is another posting from Joel; as before, please address your comments and questions to Joel!
The Dao De Jing has been used to justify political regimes at many points in history and there are fairly obvious reasons for this, concomitant with the idea of philosophy more generally. The idea that there are gradations to knowledge implies that there are those who know more. The idea that there are those who know more implies that probably those who possess “true” knowledge should rule over those who do not. The apparent problems growing from this are aggravated when the process of “true” knowledge is attributed to those who possess and/or practice certain secrets that are not equally distributed — as is the case in here, in the Bhagavad Gita, and in texts part of the Platonic lineage.
The regime which ensues may be coercive or the product of passive assent, it may be progressive or regressive, benign or malignant — the method we shall use to judge any regime is not whether or not it is concomitant with the values of our age (i.e. globalized liberal democracy), but whether or not it is consistent with the teachings of the texts themselves. To this end, we must explicate what we may reliable infer about proper governance from this text.
My reading of the philosophy of these texts is substantially influenced by my documentation of the “esoteric” roots of these same texts, insofar as a hermeneutic for dealing with “esotericism” seems generally lacking. As stated in my previous essay, this seems a product of the term “mysticism” to refer to a large breath of activities described as “ineffable,” without understanding the more complex theoretical understanding underlying these activities (e.g. the practice of TCM or Ayurvedic medicine and the formation of related operative frameworks).
In the West, I have also argued this stems from a simplification of the religion of antiquity introduced by Christianity, wherein multiple levels of understanding (happening via “initiation” but understood along spectrum), was replaced by a binary understanding wherein the world was divided between pagan and Christian factions. This simplification relied on the use of a single faculty, “faith,” instead of the development of a number of different virtues. Later “faith,” when contrasted with the critical scholarship and “science” was easily rejected in favor of the latter.
However, it does not seem that science, at least as currently conceived, necessarily gives us the tools to examine more fully the Weltanschaung of previous civilizations, particularly when their proposed systems (including political systems) emphasize points other than our contemporary focus on “rights.”
This is to state that contemporary forms, whether aware or unaware, frequently make “man,” if not the measure of all things, the center of all things. This evolution, as is indicated in the story of the American revolution, but even more so in the case of the French, was counterpoised to the long standing emphasis on the rights of kings — a right that was claimed to be given by God. The invocation of the blessing of the chief or sole deity of course was also present in American democracy, whereby the human gained his ability to pursue his personal happiness as a consequence of divine action, a claim that ushered in a new age.
However, the birth of a language of “rights” is in some many ways foreign to the origins and best parts of monarchy, and we would be remiss if we discussed a political system only via its low points. The monarch at times (Bismark might be the most recent example), saw himself not as simply a claimant to divine power, but as the “vicar” of God on this earth and recipient of a divine mandate. In other words, the monarch could equally a recipient of a “calling” or “vocation” in a political field, just as the settlers of New England saw their collective calling to build a new Jerusalem (or for that matter, the calling of the ancient Romans to carry forward the legacy of Troy).
Puett, in his discussion of this subject in an article for the Cardoso Legal Review, helpfully turns to the last great theorist of pre-Democratic state power in the West, Carl Schmitt. Given the growth of modern political systems of an explicitly Christian understanding, the sovereign exists in the world of “faith,” which is to say, the “miracle.” The “divine” is experienced soley by abrogation of the existing material order. As Puett observes and Schmitt clarifies, this allows the sovereign to exist in a state of “exception,” which is a corresponding abrogation and suspension of the legal order.
Consequently, we are forced to agree with Schmitt insofar as our consideration, or lack thereof, of the “theological” conceptual roots of modern political systems, leads to something that can be considered “political theology.” Even so, we find unwelcome results on both sides of this divide. Our ignorance or rejection of “theology” may make us incapable of dealing with other civilizational modes (potentially unsuccessfully attempting replace them with globalized liberal democracy), whereas our simple positive assertion may make us embrace any sovereign at all — once we are in the world of political “faith” there is nothing else we can do but to “believe.”
Unfortunately, this has the additional unwelcome result of putting us in mode of perpetual war and, consequently, permanent state of exception. If, according to a Christian understanding, the world is divided into Christian and pagan, the “enemy” is a continual other and there can be no peace until he is eliminated. Puett also appropriate discusses this in light of our present political situation, the extension of executive powers in the Bush era renders the head of the American state increasingly monarch engaged in perpetual war with “terrorism,” a trend also incisively discussed by Schmitt in his “Theory of the Partisan.” This indicates that we return to abstracted “theological” categories even when we try to avoid them — the ghosts of our past are present whether or not we attempt to forget them.
The question for American empire at this point may simply be the following: Is there any way to return to an unexceptional state of affairs once one has evoked the state of exception? The simple fact is that even if Bush led in evoking the types of civilizational and religious war with an “other,” America’s use of pseudo-religious metaphors and dramatic contrasts has not diminished — indeed, one might expect and observe that the claimed “right” of the cause may argued more violently as the observable benefit decreases.
With the Iraq war and elsewhere, our political leaders unsurprisingly call for “faith,” and it is here that a consideration of the political philosophy contained in “antique” texts may be most useful. If, in the world of the Dao De Jing, there is a division between those who have absorbed the multi-faceted message and those who exist solely in the world of words, the relationship between those who know and do not does not depend primarily on force.
In other words, there is a necessary relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. As also found in Confucian texts, the individual human’s efforts to cultivate him or herself have their expression in concentric circles, a positive energy radiating outwards from family to society at large, a situation that is referred to as “existing in accord with the natural order.” (自然).
Here one does not always find the modern emphasis on the importance of the individual human. A human may be expected to give his or her life for the sake of the greater community to which life is attached. Indeed, a greater expression of individual humanity is expected and stated as a possibility when a resonance is established between the individual and the way — than when any external object (e.g. riches) is taken as a proxy for success.
To a certain extent, it is not surprising that contemporary non-academic discussions on the “Dao” (e.g. the Dao of Pooh) have seen the emerging political order not in the assumption of a new strong man to replace and oppose the old, but in the gradual development of autonomous communities bound together by principles beyond the common desire for riches, a force that may be closer to that which bound the original settlers of America than the common motivations of political parties today.
This attempt to move beyond ideology, especially the exaltation of “mammon” excoriated by both early Christians, Stoics, Daoists, and Yogis, may mean that the ultimate bond that ensues as a replacement is also “ineffable.” People are bound together by a feeling much more like the often inexplainable features of romantic love (and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good), then demanding benefits supposedly due to them as the result of some social contract.
The alternative, and this is what I personally witnessed at the last conference on Buddhist-Daoist influence at Princeton, is to default to economic metaphors and modes of thinking. Although Puett raised the question of any alternative, there was no answer. All that remained were the same trends we find in many traditions: more priests, more mantras, more money.
Sadly, no Kenysian stimulus can solve the “existentialist” problem of detachment from a deeper stream of being such that we have no intuition and nothing other than economic metaphors and nothing can save us from having nothing but worthless green paper in our hands once we give way to overwhelming tendency to print money — a process that inevitably ensues once we have abandoned deeper intuitions embedded in our civilization in favor of the pied piper’s latest merry tune.
If we must abandon Schmitt, for he leaves us with nothing more than “theology” in an incomplete mode which depends on miracles instead of deepened understanding and intuition (such as I have argued was part of classical antiquity), we can at least thank him for pointing us to him who must ultimately have the final word, the old bard of the fairy queen and once merry England.
Hamlet, according to Schmitt, is trapped between the Catholic world of ghosts and the deconstructionst rational discourse of his mind, without a way to act and resolve the difficulties, a theme ultimately taken up by T.S. Eliot’s own discussion of fertility, the act that meets the shadow. Perhaps in a way of foreshadowing his own tragic career, Schmitt, like Hamlet, also ends on a tragic note about the possibility of reconciliation, the same note that is sounded by Shakespeare in his discussion of the dual bodies of Richard II.
That one can be a king, but not kingly, is in a certain sense derivative of the Aquinian division between essence and existence and a royal doctrine originating from this strain (extensively documented in Ernst Kantorowicz’s master work the King’s Two Bodies). Shakespeare’s work Richard II presents the case of his “dear, dear land” which is “now leased out,” due to a king who has chased after petty trifles and, in a manner of speaking, traded his kingdom for “a set of beads.”
Here, in the fairy queen, the king who is not a king, and the doubting son who refuses to perform the act that will gain him his father’s crown, we gain a shadow of an understanding of something “ineffable” yet deeper than potentially offered by those who offer us little more than inflation in rituals and ritual texts. In the world of Shakespeare, the remnants of civilization simply wait for a new conqueror to weave back together the deep strains of “this scepter’d isle… this seat of Mars.” Whether or not we will have a new Henry IV, or must wait for Fortinbras to arise from the empires of the East I suppose depends on what pockets of courage and honor remain in the West.
Ever since the Puritans set foot in New England, Hamlet is also everyman. The inner torment and struggles, which, in past epochs, may have been unique to the sovereign and his royal seers, are now exposed to each man and woman and hobbit who choose to follow the way. Whether or not we chose the path of material increase (and associated violence) or whether or not we choose being is up to us.
The Dao De Jing, or Book of the Way and its Power, can only be a guidebook for inner exploration and experience, not a textbook on how to rule, or worse, blueprint for a mantic printing press. In the way, as we accord ourselves to this natural order that is beyond words we serve as a magnetic point of attraction for a “way” truer than the latest magic tricks of financial wizards and political puppet masters. Which side do we stand on? As Hamlet says, “That is the question.”
Prior to his time at the University of Pennsylvania, Joel Dietz performed graduate work on political theory with Martin van Creveld at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.