"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Spiritual Basis Of Conservatism

Hindus are often criticized for the caste system, a social order which defines place, role, and position.  It is a retrograde system, say many in the West, for it is anti-democratic, oppressive, and restrictive.  No one in India has the opportunity to rise above their assigned and anointed level, to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and to achieve wealth and recognition.  The high-caste and financially secure were born into privilege and lead a life of fulfillment and respect while the lower castes suffer in poverty, ignorance, and alienation.

From a Hindu point of view, however, this interpretation is nonsense.  The caste system has never had anything to do with patriarchy or the maintenance of secular rule and authority.  It is all about spiritual enlightenment.  The world is illusion, say Hindus, and the caste system by limiting choice, decision, and resultant confusion, enables all Indians to focus on the only purpose of life – the attainment of a higher state of being.

A corollary of this philosophical principle is spiritual individualism.  Since every man is ultimately responsible for his lot in life, carrying with him the good and bad karma from previous lives, then social commitment is beside the point.  While Hinduism recognizes the four stages of life – Student, Householder, Hermit, and Ascetic – and acknowledges the necessary engagement of the individual in society in the first two stages, overall Hinduism is about personal evolution and spiritual attainment.

Again Western critics are quick to jump, saying that a society without volunteerism, caring, and respect for others can never progress; but Hindus reply that social acts mean nothing in and of themselves, but relate only to prescription (e.g. the giving of alms) or karmic inventory.  The highest human attainment that any individual can has nothing to do with social acclaim or community tribute.  It has all to do with a spiritual evolution and maturation until the world of illusion is forgotten and the world of God revealed.

American individualism has its origins in the Enlightenment and the birth of classical liberalism, and the Declaration of Independence is eloquent in its statement (which echoes the philosopher John Locke) about the sanctity of the individual.

All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to insure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Enlightenment was based on reason and logic, but its principles were articulated within a religious context. The reason why the individual was sacrosanct and why his freedoms had to be fiercely defended was religious.  Man’s purpose on Earth is to know God and through that knowledge attain the rewards of heaven.

Spiritual individualism coincided nicely with economic enterprise, for the early American Protestants saw the acquisition of wealth as a sign of God’s favor and grace; but the foundational principles of the Republic were always religious in spirit.  Christianity differs significantly from Hinduism in that the New Testament stresses charity, forgiveness, tolerance, and caring; but both religions stress the primacy of the individual.  A Christian will be rewarded for his charity, and thus such acts are part of his own, personal, spiritual progress.

Tolstoy is perhaps the most eloquent novelist on the subject of death and dying; and the internal soliloquies of Ivan Ilyich (The Death of Ivan Ilyich) and Andrei Bolkonsky (War and Peace) are unequivocal – we die alone, and must come to face Death in our own way.  Tolstoy was also a Christian who believed in goodness as the only value in life (Levin, Anna Karenina), but such principle has nothing to do with the solitary and individual moment of death.

Chekhov also wrote about the meaning – or rather lack of meaning of life.  In Ward Number 6, Ivan Dmitrich says:

"Cursed life," he grumbled, "and what's bitter and insulting, this life will not end in compensation for our sufferings, it will not end with apotheosis as it would in an opera, but with death; peasants will come and drag one's dead body by the arms and the legs to the cellar. Ugh! Well, it does not matter. . . . We shall have our good time in the other world. . . . I shall come here as a ghost from the other world and frighten these reptiles. I'll turn their hair grey."

More chilling are the thoughts of Andrei Yefimitch in the same story as he lays dying:

Towards evening Andrei Yefimitch died of an apoplectic stroke. At first he had a violent shivering fit and a feeling of sickness; something revolting as it seemed, penetrating through his whole body, even to his finger-tips, strained from his stomach to his head and flooded his eyes and ears. There was a greenness before his eyes. Andrei Yefimitch understood that his end had come, and remembered that Ivan Dmitritch, Mihail Averyanitch, and millions of people believed in immortality. And what if it really existed? But he did not want immortality -- and he thought of it only for one instant. A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, of which he had been reading the day before, ran by him; then a peasant woman stretched out her hand to him with a registered letter. . . . Mihail Averyanitch said something, then it all vanished, and Andrei Yefimitch sank into oblivion for ever.

In As I Lay Dying Faulkner writes:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not.

When you are filled with death, you never were; and at both moments of sleep and death you don’t know what you are what you were or even if you ever were.

The point is this – We may live together, but we die alone.  If life has a purpose it is understanding who we are as individuals – our essence, our being, our intimate unique nature – and only then can we face the most important moment in our life, death.

If there is one distinct difference between liberal and conservative political philosophy, it is on the relative importance of the individual and society.  Conservatives value the individual above all, and in so doing return to the spiritual roots of the Republic, the Enlightenment which gave it intellectual vigor, and Christian – especially Protestant – tradition.  Although individualism today is valued more for economic and social enterprise and less for the discovery of one’s unique soul and the individual’s relationship to God, it is still a philosophy which acknowledges fundamental spiritual principles.

Liberals look a life in the aggregate.  The individual per se has no value; but society does.  Collectively human communities have evolved norms of behavior and a code of morals and ethics, and it is the role of government to arbitrate, guide, and adjudicate.

It is no surprise that conservatives tend to be more religious, and more fundamentally so.  While Catholics believe in authority, hierarchy, and structure; American fundamentalists value the individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  “Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”, they ask.  The Catholic Church asks no such question.  Christ and his Church are perfect and absolute, and Rome will set the standards for one’s relationship with both.

It is also no surprise that people become more conservative as they get older.  As we approach our death we understand what Tolstoy and Chekhov were talking about – we die alone, and for all our fuss about family, friends, and community, we have a prearranged, inescapable, and solitary meeting with death.  We better get our spiritual life in order before it is too late.

Creative expression – another supremely human activity – was thought in the Middle Ages to be a way of honoring God.  This distinctly religious conviction changed in the Renaissance and forever after; but the sentiment of the value of unique, individual, inner spirituality did not.  The artist creates and expresses for himself.  He cannot do otherwise and is compelled to find an outlet for reflections about his humanity and mortality.

Nietzsche was perhaps the best-known individualist philosopher.  Only the Superman who is beyond good and evil and the bourgeois limitations of morality can validate his humanity.  I do, I conquer, I rule; and therefore I am, said Nietzsche.  He knew that life is a solitary enterprise, given by chance, without purpose, and shortly over; and only through absolute will and determination can life have any meaning.

The subject of individualism is by no means new. “In the English language, the word "individualism" was first introduced, as a pejorative, by the Owenites in the late 1830s,..A more positive use of the term in Britain came to be used with the writings of James Elishama Smith, who was a millenarian and a Christian Israelite” (Wikipedia). However philosophers and theologians from the Greeks to St. Augustine, and from Kierkegaard to Sartre and Derrida have considered the issue.  Political philosophy is nothing but a study of the relation of the individual to community and the State.

The term ‘individualism’ today, however, has lost most of the sophisticated meaning given by Aristotle, Locke, and Thomas Jefferson; and has become a catch phrase for anti-governmentalism.  However, America is old enough to have incorporated and institutionalized the concept.  No additional reflection is required.  We all understand that the individual is primary because he alone is responsible for creative thought, enterprise, and spiritual meaning. 

As in the Householder Phase of Hinduism, the individual American has responsibilities to others and must abide by society’s rules of engagement; but it would be a mistake to assume that as society we are evolving from some crude laissez-faire individualism to social collectivism.  On the contrary, we are neither so naïve or so ignorant.  The individual is and will always be at the center of society, the engine of history, and the only unique product of evolution or Creation.

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