Monday, November 11, 2019

Other Paths

A look at the traditions emerging in India and China and considering these against the traditions of the Greeks and the Hebrews that ultimately developed into Natural Law.  My purpose is not to demonstrate the superiority of any one vs. the other; more so, to consider these as foundations for a culture conducive to liberty as we have come to understand this concept in the West.

There is value in this, I believe, on many levels: is liberty – as westerners consider the term – universal?  Is it possible to build liberty – as westerners understand the term – on other cultural foundations?  These are worth considering, if for no other reason than to develop an appreciation for the value of culture and tradition – a specific culture and tradition – in developing and sustaining liberty.

Note: I do not say that those who do not come from a Christian tradition cannot or will not find or value liberty as Westerners understand the term.  But if we believe at all that the foundation matters to the long-term health of a structure, well…then the foundation matters. 

You are free to believe that the foundation of a structure is irrelevant to the long-term health of that structure.  But, then, you won’t be free for long – and I strongly prefer that you don’t take the rest of us down with you.  That others from outside of this foundation also value the structure is a different issue entirely.

On to Armstrong: in the sixth century BC, a new philosophy was emerging in India: Samkhya – meaning discrimination, reflection, or discussion.  This philosophy would become extremely influential in India – almost every other school would adopt some of its ideas.  While a sixth-century sage, Kapila, would be credited with its invention, it is not even certain that such a person existed.

While the Greeks were oriented to the external world, Samkhya looked within:

The supreme reality of the Samkhya system was purusha (the “person” or “self”). …Every single human being had his or her own individual and eternal purusha…. purusha was impossible to define because it had no qualities that we could recognize.

It was the essence of human beings, but it was not a soul; it had nothing to do with our mental or physical states; it had no intelligence and no desires; our ordinary waking selves were oblivious to its existence.

The root of our unhappiness was our sense of ego, trapping us in a false sense that had nothing to do with our eternal purusha.   When we say “I,” we think we are representing our entire being, but this being was subject to time – not eternal; it yearned for liberation.  It was ignorance of this eternal purusha that held us back.

…sacrifice was useless.  The gods were also imprisoned by nature, so it was pointless to ask for their help.

Two important contributions to Indian spirituality were offered: first, all life was suffering (unsatisfactory, awry).  People died, became ill, lost their beauty and vitality.  The second contribution was yoga – offered as one of India’s greatest achievements.  Designed to release the purusha from the entanglement of nature, it was a systematic assault on the ego.

To show one’s spiritual ambition, one first had to move through a long preparation.  Yogic exercise was not permitted until an extensive moral training was mastered: harmlessness to all of creation; stealing and lying were forbidden as were sex and intoxicating substances.

From here, one would master the ability to sit: straight-backed, legs crossed, completely motionless for hours at a time.  Breathing must be controlled – pausing as long as possible, such that one appeared to stop breathing altogether.  Once the physical was conquered, the mental came next: the concentration on one point, until the “I” slowly disappeared from his thinking.

Yogins did not believe that they were touched by a god; there was nothing supernatural about these experiences. …these men of the Axial Age were achieving an ecstatic “stepping out” of the norm by becoming more fully aware of their own nature.

Their nature was fully realized when the “I” and the “mine” completely disappeared.  Yet, a spiritual vacuum would open up.  Karma would depress society: one felt doomed to one transient life after another – with this eternal purusha moving from being to being upon the death of its host.  Even good karma couldn’t save them – as all around they saw only pain and suffering.

Further, yoga was not available to all – demanding hours of effort every day, and this after the countless hours necessary to achieve mastery.  Householders need not apply – there was no time.

Meanwhile, in the mid-sixth century BC in China, Kong Qiu came on the scene, better known to us as Confucius.  China’s Axial Age was about to begin.

Confucius was incensed at the illicit performance of royal rites:

“The Way makes no progress,” he lamented. …As a commoner, he could not establish the dao; only a king could do that.  But he could educate a band of holy informed men who would instruct the rulers of China in the Way and recall them to their duty.

No solitary ascetic, Confucius was a wandering scholar who enjoyed fine wine and a good dinner.  He did not develop his thoughts through introspection, but through conversation with others.  He is described as both kind and brilliant.

After marveling at the somewhat daunting attainments of the yogins, it is a relief to turn to Confucius, whose Way, properly understood, was accessible to anybody.

For Confucius, everyone had the potential to become a fully developed human being – this can be seen as the proper end or purpose for humans in the Aristotelian sense.  A proper study of the Way could lead anyone to become a gentleman – a mature or profound person.  This was no longer limited to the princes or nobility.

Confucius felt that the Way was once perfectly practiced, but no longer.  Most princes never gave the dao a second thought – instead chasing after luxury and pursuing their selfish ambitions.

But Confucius did not concern himself with a chase of heaven, instead seeing the Way in terms of action in this world.  Metaphysics and theological chatter were not for him.  “Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?”

Like the Indian sages, Confucius saw the ego as the source of human pettiness and cruelty.  Unlike the Indian sages, Confucius saw that the way to overcome this was via practice – actual practice of proper behavior toward others, and not by sitting still in one position for hours at a time.  Confucius was looking at man’s actions toward his fellow man.

Treat others with absolute sacred respect.  Start with close family, then friends, then grow the circle and grow more circles.  He was the first, perhaps, to articulate something approaching the Golden Rule: “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”  More like the Silver Rule, but still a foundational moral precept.


From this limited introduction, it seems clear that the work of these Indian sages offers an example of an inward focus – the end result might be a peaceful community if enough people choose this life, but the entire focus was internal: man was the means through which he would achieve his own perfection.  Yet if man is the standard or measuring stick, he has already influenced the answer merely by being in the game.

In answer to the Indian sages, Christianity offers Jesus Christ as the measuring stick – the standard at which we are to aim – the Form of the Good made manifest.  Man as the standard leaves room for manipulation and control.

Confucius, on the other hand, offered the Way – something similar to what we know as Natural Law, committed to other-considering behavior.  C. S. Lewis makes this point clearly.  Yet Confucius was missing something: an answer to the question “Why?  On whose authority?”

In answer to Confucius, Christianity offers two concepts: man is made in God’s image; this answers the why.  Jesus came as the Form of the Good made manifest; this answers on whose authority.  This combination of concepts are found in no other tradition or religion.  Without these as unquestioned foundations, any concept of liberty as a westerner might understand it is built on sand.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

In Search of Ethics

The eighth century was a period of religious transition in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and at this time we see the first stirrings of the Axial spirituality that would come to fruition there some two hundred years later.

What was this Axial spirituality?  Criticism of ritual, to be replaced by an ethically based religion.  The government of the northern kingdom was seen as corrupt, not caring for the poor.  Into this, God sent Amos – with visions of God commanding the destruction of the temple and Israel. 

Yahweh was no longer reflexively on the side of Israel, as he had been at the time of the exodus.  He would use the king of Assyria to punish Jeroboam for his neglect of the poor.

God would lead a holy war against Israel and Judah, as if He was personally humiliated by their behavior.  The Israelites saw their religion as superficial, with rituals performed by rote – they did not see through the rituals to the meaning.  The transition was at hand: sympathy and empathy would be the mark of religion. 

Amos and Hosea had both introduced an important new dimension to Israelite religion.  Without good ethical behavior, they insisted, ritual alone was worthless.

Here we are offered a glimpse of Jesus, who came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it.  The law pointed to loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  Amos and Hosea were delivering this message from God.  Israel was glimpsing the spirituality that would be exemplified in Jesus – other-serving.

Isaiah would deliver a similar message, seeing the terrifying reality behind the temple rituals.  Isaiah 6 offers God’s message: you (Isaiah) will speak, but the people will not hear; the cities will be laid waste and deserted, the countryside desolate.

Meanwhile Greece was emerging from its dark age; the most important development was the creation of the polis – the small, independent city-state, with citizens learning the art of self-government.  Trade with the east would increase, and with it the importing of traditions and gods from the east: Apollo, Ishtar, Adonis – from Asia Minor, Cyprus, and the Middle East.

But it was Homer that perhaps influenced Greek religion most of all: it was glorious to die in battle; there was joy in the comradeship; fame was more important than life itself.  In war, men lived more intensely.  This sounds nothing like the Axial Age spirit which Armstrong is developing throughout the book:

Homer seems to have nothing in common with the spirit of the Axial Age.  Yet standing on the threshold of a new era, Homer was able to look critically at the heroic ideal.

The hero had to die; there was a poignancy in the fate of the warrior.  But in the Iliad, Achilles would have none of this. 

“Don’t gloss over death to me in order to console me.  …I would rather be above ground still and laboring for some poor peasant man than be the lord over the lifeless dead.”

The violence and death of the warrior would often be presented as pointless and self-destructive in the Iliad.  Achilles, the exemplar of the warrior, would also show his other side.  King Priam would come personally to claim the body of his dead son; Achilles, astonished that the enemy king would walk into his tent and kiss his feet, wept with the king.

This experience of self-emptying sympathy enabled each to see the divine and godlike in the other.  In this scene, if not in the rest of the poem, Homer had perfectly expressed the spirit of the Axial Age.

However, where the God of Israel was showing compassion, the gods of Olympus remained indifferent.  Every Greek god had a dark and dangerous side; none was wholly good, none concerned about morality.  This cult would survive for another seven centuries. 

Despite the example of Achilles, the Greeks were militarizing the entire polis.  Sparta, the most radical example, would subjugate the individual wholly to the polis.  It was a self-surrender, but a parody – in service of military instead of service to humanity.

In China, a transition from an archaic monarchy to a unified empire.  Ancient custom replaced royal authority.  The perfection of ritual performance would mark the beginning of China’s Axial Age.  They would attempt to moderate warfare. 

The rituals strictly limited the violence permitted in battle, and forbade warriors to take advantage of the enemy’s weakness.  Warfare became an elaborate pageant, governed by courtesy and restraint.

Victory revealed the righteousness of the victor, but only if the battle was righteously engaged.  Archers would take turns firing at each other, as it would not be fair to fire twice in succession.  Status would be lost if the nobleman killed too many people.  Battle would only be engaged when the enemy was prepared.  Victory should not bring unseemly gloating.


We see in all three traditions glimpses of other-serving behavior – in word, if not always in deed.  Each advancing at a different pace, each developing in a less-than-perfect manner.  It is this consideration of other-serving behavior that identifies the age.

Monday, November 4, 2019

We Fly Too High

Icarus and his father attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus' father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, so the sea's dampness would not clog his wings nor the sun's heat melt them. Icarus ignored his father's instructions not to fly too close to the sun; when the wax in his wings melted, he tumbled out of the sky and fell into the sea where he drowned, sparking the idiom "don't fly too close to the sun".

I received an email…not recently.  This one is from Scott Thomason, from March 2017.  I have kept it in my inbox all of this time; it was too important to archive and forget, yet I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I would someday do with it.  I have decided now, obviously, to do something with it.  Thomason has given me permission to give his name.  To his email – but only snippets; I have considered posting the entire email, but I cannot bring myself to something approaching a guest writer….

Your writings on culture and libertarianism have made me think.  Culture and tradition provide us a sense of the permanent and a tether across time to our ancestors. They add an aspect to our human identity without which we seem incomplete.

By this point, I had been writing on the intersection of libertarianism and culture for a couple of years, with some intellectual prep work done even before that on the issues I saw coming from left-libertarianism.  I was quite focused on the aspect of a cultural foundation if one wanted to achieve and maintain something approaching liberty.

But I hadn’t yet connected it to this idea of an “incomplete…human identity,” as Thomason had done – in other words, I hadn’t connected it to the meaning crisis engulfing the West today.  Of course, in a society where life is given no meaning, we should not expect liberty to bloom.  I have come to understand this over the last year or two.

Thomason looked at this loss of meaning – the fruits of leftist thinking, where “leftist” means anything opposed to traditional morality and values.

The Left in my view seems to be circling the drain. Where are they going? What is their unifying cause? Other than a hatred for everything traditional I do not know.

This will be their undoing, eventually.  In the meantime, we all must suffer.  And what of libertarians?  Let’s just push the hypothetical button – Thanos does his deed, but only aimed at those who lord over us.  Does this result in happiness for the libertarian, a fulfilled life? 

There is the urge in most of us to make libertarianism more than it is. …For me, libertarianism once had a certain messianic feel to it. The state was the only thing separating man from his complete fulfillment.

It is a topic that C. Jay Engel has tackled – or, I should say, is in the process of tackling.  Libertarians are sucked into the political game of the state; everything is politicized today, therefore libertarians look to the problem being political and the solution to be found only by using the political to eliminate the political.

Let’s imagine we’ve all pushed that button. We all have our freedom, our glorious private law society. And then what? I hardly see an end to libertarian bickering. What is our purpose now? What is our meaning? How can we find either of them?

This is where I have come to the idea that the cart is before the horse.  Without purpose, meaning – built on cultural tradition and Natural Law – it will not be liberty that survives the pushing of the button; the mainstream culture cannot support this.  Per Thomason, the left looks to scientism as savior.  He also points to libertarians who lean on pure reason – reason without tradition, without God. 

Wonder is ridiculed, if not lost. The world fades to black and white. And where reason cannot extend, serious questions are dismissed. Rather than admit reason’s shortcomings, inconvenient questions are ridiculed. In an age of drive-thru answers, who can ask real questions?

Shortly after the time of this email, I posted a few of these “real questions” that many libertarians would not ask or would ignore.  I am not sure that I had Thomason’s email in mind; obviously the subject was in the air at the blog at the time.

There is no room for culture, tradition, or what is labeled metaphysics.  If it cannot be tested, proven, falsified, etc., it means nothing in this enlightened world.  Where does it leave this enlightened libertarian – leaning on scientism and pure reason – now that the button has been pushed?

The average libertarian who doesn’t believe in Old World truth—the heroic and aristocratic virtues and the Christian truth in self-sacrifice—a truth beyond the rational and the empirical, is a sitting duck for relativism if he believes in the NAP and the NAP alone.

Libertarianism gives us something akin to the Silver Rule, but it is the Golden Rule that offers some hope of preserving liberty.  Relativism, when it comes to ethics, is a dead end for liberty.

There is no comprehension of the dual nature of real freedom, that if it is to last, it must be accompanied by responsibility, duty, honor, etc.

There is also no comprehension of the need for an objective ethics, ethics derived from the nature of man – Natural Law.  One need not speak of rights – even the right to not be hit first or the right to property – if one first does not have a theory of law, a theory built on principles that one is not entitled to look beyond – principles that are only to be accepted as given.