Loving Democracy, Flying at Dusk

  1. That Third Quality

In the midst of vaccination controversy someone remarked that we need a better balance between individual and communal dimensions.

Yes, but aren’t we talking about something beyond only balance or mixture, or transaction – something more like mutuality or synergy? I think we are pointing to the very quality that makes democracy so difficult to articulate. Indeed, the state of right relationship at the heart of democracy is a bit like the Dao: “The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.”

Beyond tension between communal and individual dimensions, democracy envisions what some in my tradition have called “thirdness,” and what I currently refer to as “relational liberalism.” It is a shared space which is paradoxically both empty and full. In the healthy state, everything stands out vivid — in its “suchness,” fully differentiated against the backdrop of emptiness – as the poet Rilke said, “whole and against a wide sky.” And yet this ideal space does not collapse into chaotic and irresponsible individualism. Instead, harmony is maintained and continuously enhanced.

Humans may have an innate affinity for the relational space in which we can both be who we most genuinely are at the same time we become capable of love and being loved. Sharing that fundamental human experience of the “sweet spot” beyond antinomy between self and other, we then become capable of participating in the design of a communal life which cultivates faithfulness to the sacred space.

But democratic community is only possible if enough of us maintain awareness of its existence in an endlessly distracting world, aware of it as profound experience of the goodness of life.

2. The Perspective of Dusk

William James, reimagining religion from the ground up in the post-traditional era, begins with what he describes as the commonly shared and ordinary religious experience of “an unexpected life succeeding upon death…. Experiences of a life that supervenes upon despair.” It seems pretty clear to me that some these days are speaking of this same paradigmatic experience as one of “hopeful pessimism.” Could this be an opening to a revival of the humanities?

Which takes us to Hegel: “the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk.” Like the fire required by the jack pine tree for its seeds to open and grow, there seems a natural law at work here, one our modern ancestors overlooked, dismissed, or relativized into non-existence. In a dark time the eye begins to see. 

I think what many of us see in the early stages of this flight was well articulated by Heidegger’s saying that humans are “beings unto death.” We are finite beings who are strangely “religious” in our awareness of death impending, and at the same time of possible agency in the cosmos more developed than our own (already wondering and worrying about robots).

These observations, of course, involve deeply existential questions about the status of our presence in life, questions no human should have to live with alone. The intensity would be too much.

3. Collapse of Culture, and Nihilism

Traditional culture was thrown into the totally chaotic backwash of the enormous engines of modernization and technology, while the world came to be  rewoven into the ever more tenuous interdependence of an interim time, a time in which lying is taken as normal, and any affirmation is easily colonized by the anti-culture of money and power. In retrospect, it all seems to have happened so exceedingly fast.

The consequences of radical departure from traditional culture as a way of ordering and prioritizing life have been enormous and predominately negative (not at all completely so – not to trash our own liberation and best hopes!). First the cultural critique pushed by natural rights liberals effectively reduced culture to privileges and oppressions ordered according to demographics, in a kind of feeding frenzy from which no affirmation is safe. Then the GOP, after decades of obsession with nothing more than confounding the liberal establishment, and finally with their own President who turns out to be a nihilist and a fascist, revealing – among other things — the relativistic cynicism inherent in Republican critique of “the liberal left.” Meanwhile, movements toward ecological integrity, sanity on weapons of mass destruction, dialogue, and justice definitely do bring light into the deeply troubled world from time to time.

Amidst absurdity and bad theater, the question becomes simple: do we still believe in “Liberty and Justice for All,” E Pluribus Unum, and the exceedingly ambitious ideal of an “equality of difference”? Do we still aspire to create and live in a society where difference is approached as opportunity rather than threat? Are we able to expect civility, truthfulness, and sincerity?  Do we still believe in anything like a society of peace and justice? Were we totally naïve when we “believed” these things before?

With the old order of civilization, the civilization of the Axial Age, great aspiration was mixed ambiguously with stunning failure and atrocity. Now, with the old order eclipsed and starved by machine life and the making of money, we suddenly find ourselves standing naked with these questions about what we believe or live for. No longer are we able to trust institutions of the past to insulate us from discomforting realities or supply answers. Loneliness and what people do to avoid it become serious problems.

We live in a time of multiple, intersecting, and mutually reinforcing crises (like a firestorm), as though there is a single crisis with many manifestations, indicating something like the smashing of tectonic plates deep under surface expressions of earthquake in the seemingly unrelated tipping over of bookshelves, etc. at your place and mine.

The problematic individualism of Hobbes and Locke in which relatedness comes to be of extrinsic value only (i.e. what I might get), not intrinsic (i.e. what I might be, or what might be right), is both the cause and the result of the collapse of traditional culture – and ensuing loneliness. Driven by critical awareness and unexamined assumptions about the nature of “freedom,” tradition, was thrown overboard – so we have no choice but to work with the blank slate.

A different kind of person is required in order for human thriving to occur under our new circumstances, different from “tradition-directed,” “inner-directed,” and “other-directed” images of adulthood from the past. We need people who are emotionally as well as intellectually (and can we say “spiritually”?) well-developed, and who are not only creatively and voluntarily connected with the richness of history and tradition in whatever form they receive it, but also, and above all, compassionate — on what can be a very nasty planet (many, recently Karen Armstrong, have observed that compassionate presence in the world is the commonly shared essence of the world’s great traditions.

4.  Authoritarianism as Response to Failure of Individualism

John Stewart Mill said “democracy is only possible among those who are in the maturity of their faculties.” 

Persons who are unable to tolerate the complexity, danger, and wild plurality of our time, and who are also severed from connection with healthy sources of ongoing education and care of the soul, wind up sowing seeds of chaos. They may even look good or be popular (or an “influencer”) while doing so. But chaos is the essence of “toxic;” it melts confidence in anything like a shared reality and cooks up all manner of conspiracy theories, leading to admiration only for those who have the power – or whatever magical capacity, including outrageous violence — to assert themselves.

Democracy can be seen as the attempt to build a society on the vital paradox of simultaneous self and other thriving. This is that central point about compassion mentioned above, as broadly celebrated among the world’s great traditions though very distinctly not sharedamong modern, consumer-based schemes of fulfillment, let alone authoritarian reaction to the insufficiencies of modern life.

In the midst of all this, let us recall democracy as the most noble (though by no means exclusive) American aspiration, a hope and an ontological push that invigorates the natural world as well as the human, in the deep surging of interdependent life. It should also be said that our time we are brought to see imperfect democracy as the only alternative to hell on Earth. So the choice in one sense is about as simple as it could be.

What it comes down to is a way of being, even with myself, on a planet where, as Arendt put it, “plurality is the law of the earth.” The relational-democratic alternative to racist, sexist, classist behaviors and criteria, locates us at our best in the “paradoxical plurality” of beings who are the same in that we are each unique and capable of beginning something new, which is to say, capable of participating in the ongoing act of creation itself and the religious community implicit therein. Which is to say, having a soul.

The question now is whether, after all we have been through in the super-compressed educational process of the last several decades, we have the energy to step up to action on/with this aspiration, this possibility which becomes vivid at dusk?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: