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.


  1. I like the tangent you've taken recently with Karen's books. Will this be an addition to your book or is this book 2? I doubt she'd agree with your conclusions about Western society, Christianity and freedom, but her work is worth reading.

    The Asian philosophies have always struck me as variants of the philosophy of the slave. The inward focus of all of them seems to dissuade practitioners from influencing outward events and circumstances. I'm not sure how effective self-immolation really is at combating tyrannical government, and even this seems to be a contradiction of their inwardly focused philosophy. Shouldn't they be concerned about their own inner peace rather than lighting themselves on fire? Finding inner peace regardless of the outer environment will lead to a peaceful contented slavery to masters who do not share your philosophy (or only do so dishonestly).

    There were many Christians who advocated a similar philosophy, those who saw that the faithful's proper attitude in society was to be "passive obedience." But other Christians saw things differently and resisted (passively or actively) kings who violated the example of our true King.

    Christ is not only our personal example of how we should behave, but He is our example of how our kings, *government, or other authority figures should behave. When they deviate from this example, we know they have ventured into the realm of injustice at best or tyranny at worst.

    *By 'government' I don't mean the state, but any organization tasked with enforcing property rights in a just manner.

    1. ATL, I am not sure I am seeing this as a tangent, but maybe so...

      I am using the book to explore a couple of ideas:

      1) to what extent was there commonality in this search for God? As God is in all men's hearts, all men seek him - albeit without always having the blessing of divine Scripture / Revelation.

      2) What of a foundation for liberty? Sure, we can say libertarianism is universal, blah, blah, blah...but does the underlying cultural foundation support such a view? Because the underlying cultural foundation will beat some thin political idea every time. other book in the works. Not yet.

    2. Maybe tangent is the wrong word. I just meant your treatment of the Axial Age in relation to the 'Search for Liberty'. Is this part of a new chapter (or chapters) in the book? It seems like it could be. Or is this just a discussion following through on your contentions in the book?

      "but does the underlying cultural foundation support such a view? Because the underlying cultural foundation will beat some thin political idea every time."

      That is the key question isn't it? It's a question I'd like to see Dr. Block and Jeffrey Tucker address.

      Speaking of thin libertarians, (and this definitely is a tangent!) I'm sure you're aware Jacob Hornberger is running for President on the LP ticket. I wonder how he'd weigh in on this discussion? He's a Christian, so I'm not sure that he would reject our contention that Christianity is the root of liberty, but he is also an open border lib, so he does seem to have the egalitarian (leftist) streak in him a bit.

      I checked out his campaign positions, and they're all very good, except of course his confusion that open borders is the only consistent libertarian policy.

      Would you consider voting for him (not that our votes matter much anyway) despite his position on borders? I know you've had a correspondence with him on the issue of borders and have written quite a few posts on that discussion, though I have not gone back over it recently.

      I think that I would, at least consider it strongly. I don't see anyone else better in the running.

    3. ATL, to the extent I do something more with the book, I expect some day I will go through and edit and extend - and perhaps something of this Axial Age will enter. We will see.

      Hornberger is very good on almost everything. But I lost respect for him in our discussions on immigration - he couldn't address objections at all. I did go to his statement at his campaign website, found this interesting:

      "There is one —and only one — solution to the immigration morass in which our nation is mired: economic liberty and free markets."

      He has the same disease as Walter does: it takes economic liberty and free markets to make the idea of open borders a libertarian idea - he says so himself; we have neither, of course. At least Walter admits this to be true but doesn't care - he still wants open borders.

      As to open immigration being "the immigration system of our American ancestors for more than 100 years..." the situation was much more nuanced than he pretends it to be. When the country had relatively open immigration, it also had economic liberty and free markets (for the most part). Also, the immigrants were of similar cultural background - necessary if you didn't have government support.

      I have written about immigration history in the US. Worth looking at if for no other reason than seeing the time-lapse map referred to in the beginning of the post.

    4. I looked back through your posts on Hornberger, and the comments. Yeah, I can see why you lost respect. Things got a little heated. He definitely dodged the question on numerous occasions, like a typical leftist intellectual would: 1000 words to dodge a 10 word answer they don't want to own up to.

      I had a correspondence with him recently via email, and I had a similar experience. He basically ignored my arguments and said that I had a policy position in mind beforehand of stemming immigration and was looking for a quasi-libertarian justification, simply taking for granted that his position was THE libertarian position.

      Anyways, I sent him an email wishing him luck on his presidential bid, because he's good on pretty much everything else. He thanked me and said he could not respond to the specifics of my email because apparently at FFF, they have "erected a wall" between FFF and political activism.

      I said hey no problem! I'm in favor of walls!

      Do you know if he's married with children? I didn't see anything about that on his campaign website bio, which I thought was a bit odd. Maybe that's just me. Please don't tell me he's gay. You remember what I said about being in two victim groups? Gay + Jew/black/trans/Muslim does not equal a good outcome.

      Normally I wouldn't care, but if this guy wants to be my chosen leader, I'd like to know if he had the stones to face the insanity of a woman, dive in anyway, and get some kids out of the deal.

    5. Your last paragraph made me laugh. I don't know if he is married, has children, etc.

      I know I contributed something negative to my exchanges with him, but I really found it all to be a waste of time. It's one reason I just quit that entire line of writing - engaging in debates / discussions with other libertarians. I didn't like how I felt after, so for the most part I have stopped this angle.

      Hornberger never took me up on this:

      Big surprise.

    6. Yeah, you weren't the most cordial to Hornberger, but I understand your frustration. Hornberger's response just smacked of effeminate obfuscation. 'You see, what we should really be talking about is what your question says about you rather than what my answer to your question is.' I'm paraphrasing 1000 words.

      Anyway, I'm way off topic, so I'll close it off here. Just wanted to get your two cents, which I always find extremely valuable.

  2. Re: foundations of freedom/liberty in other cultures... I suspect the main point of contention is that which several other cultures deeply address: the ego.
    The ego, being an accumulated sense of 'self' based on one's life experiences, is fraught with all manner of haphazard and conflicting beliefs, assumptions, opinions and whatnot, and coupled with many shades of cognitive bias. There is nothing trustworthy at all about it.
    As well, with one's sense of 'self' always being re-formed and redefined as time goes by (essentially it boils down to 'believed-in' beliefs coming and going over time), there is nothing foundational or secure about its operations or its conclusions. Therefore, we engage in a constant reaching for something new and better to believe in. We like to 'believe' that our endless search for new and better beliefs somehow relates to some kind of personal progress... that we are making our way to somewhere important, developing rarified understanding of Very Serious Issues.
    But all of this carefully stacked inverted pyramid of ego can instantly come crashing down with a personal glimpse of authentic and profound spiritual revelation. IOW, our treasured mental house of cards can easily be blown down from a breath of the Divine. In that moment, our precious beliefs and stories vaporize, as we are transported into a Reality far beyond our relatively primitive attempts at mentally hacking together something passable (believable!) that makes sense of our world, our life, our purpose.
    People who have touched on these Divine revelations come back to our reality and oftentimes attempts to speak and write about what they have seen. If they happen to do a particularly good job of it, perhaps it becomes Tradition, which will be endlessly tweaked, tinkered with and repeatedly mistranslated. Regardless, they become sacred books. These books make it easy to swallow a comprehensive set of ready-made beliefs; IOW, more ego reinforcement.
    The only way out is inward. Challenge your sense of 'self,' your ego. Challenge all your beliefs, esp those created by others that you have borrowed/stolen. Purge them all. Find your own. Challenge those, too.
    See what happens.

    1. Jesus gave a good example of purging ego. His purging also happened to offer benefits to all of mankind by doing so - something that the purging of ego in other traditions doesn't offer.

      I cannot find a higher "ego" than believing that truth will be found within. Purge all beliefs founded by others and find your own, as you suggest? Even the lowliest creatures on earth aren't so egotistical.

    2. "I cannot find a higher "ego" than believing that truth will be found within" - BM


      "Challenge your sense of 'self,' your ego. Challenge all your beliefs, esp those created by others that you have borrowed/stolen. Purge them all. Find your own. Challenge those, too. See what happens." - Anonymous

      You can follow your will and your wind and you might just go where no one's been, but I can tell you that the destination you'll find swinging on that spiral is no where I'd want to end up in.

      I hope someday you can see past yourself to see the truth of Jesus Christ.

    3. Anonymous,

      Two men who lived what you describe in your third and fourth paragraphs, the Apostles John and Paul, actually had their reality blown away when they had a "personal glimpse of authentic and profound spiritual revelation", i.e., when they literally saw Jesus the Christ. They were changed forever and went on to write half the New Testament, which effort has profoundly changed the entire world's reality. I think it is safe to state that their own personal egos were not reinforced through the experience, but rather humbled and destroyed in favor of something far superior.

      I constantly examine myself and my beliefs, including those learned from others. Learned, not borrowed/stolen. I do not purge them all, however. Instead I keep what is good and builds on what I believe to be true and discard anything which is not compatible with that understanding.

      The main problem with purging everything you believe is that you will never know the truth about anything. You will never have anything which you CAN believe in, since you must, by your own admission, discard that as well in favor of something else, which must also be challenged and purged. Life then becomes an empty quest of challenging and discarding everything which might be believable. Or, as 2 Timothy 3:7 describes it, "...always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." A life spent this way is a life of utter futility, completely wasted and empty.

      How will you know if you find anything which is true? By what standard do you measure the truth? How do you make a decision about whether anything is believable? There are only two answers to these questions--either your own squishy subjective opinion which reinforces and inflates your personal ego or a hard objective, immutable Truth which does not. There is no other choice.

    4. "By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference – Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation – Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself." - G.K. Chesterton

  3. I'd really love to see/hear a deep discussion between you and Roderick Long on libertarian ethics.

    From his wiki: "According to Long, he specializes in "Greek philosophy; moral psychology; ethics; philosophy of social science; and political philosophy (with an emphasis on libertarian/anarchist theory)."[8] Long supports what he calls "libertarian anarchy"

    I think it would be a fascinating discussion. I would probably donate some money to Mises or some organization to put it together/host it if you and he were game.

    1. Besides not having a public face, I am not terribly comfortable at such things. In any case, Rothbard really has nailed this one with his recognition that there are objective ethics required beyond the NAP if liberty is the goal.

  4. One clear difference between yoga (as described above, not necessarily the modern version) and Christianity is that the adherents of yoga attempt to escape from the seedier (carnal, sinful) side of life, but believers in Christ are taught that they can and should overcome this aspect of their nature. Yoga is escapist and irresponsible. Christianity is overpowering and accountable.

    1. Yogis seek to avoid pain and suffering by attempting to separate from it. Christians embrace the reality of pain and suffering, then act to alleviate it, not only in themselves but also others.
    2. Yogis seek to divorce the spiritual from the mental and physical. (Bionic, is that correct?) Christians are urged to bring everything into submission to the mind of Christ.
    3. Yogis are doomed to an eternity of a never-ending quest to disengage the man from himself, ever learning but never coming to the truth. Christians are declared free definitively at the moment of conversion. They are promised that their efforts are not in vain and that they will see the results within their own lifetime.
    4. Purusha is impossible to define and has no qualities we can recognize. Salvation is easily explained and lays out the concept right up front.

    This list could go on and on, but these will suffice.

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

    This is an ironic statement. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. The Indian culture is imbued and shot through with literally thousands of ‘gods’, which people worship. If the gods were impotent and it was useless to ask for their help, then why are there so many gods in Hindu culture today? Everyone has the god(s) they worship and it is quite possible that they have made up their own which no one else recognizes. This may be due to the fact that,

    “ 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.” -- BM

    I dare say that yoga was probably only seriously pursued by a small minority of the population, while the rest (extremely poor, extremely rich, businessmen, civil administrators, hedonists, etc.) were either unable or unwilling to follow that path. Because of their ignorance of the liberating gospel of Christ, the people who did not embrace yoga simply created their own gods in an attempt to escape from the pain, poverty, and misery within which they lived.

    One final difference. Yoga has done nothing to positively impact its society or to alleviate the misery endemic to India. Christian principles have changed the world, lifting countless billions out of poverty, squalor, and hopelessness.