Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Three Verse Fragments

I know something
But I just don't know
What it is I know.
I know...

You hold the truth
in your hands
Look after the truth.

I am
from where I am
to where I'd like
to be.


Photo: "driving can be cool and fun when enthralled by what lies at the end of the road", taken by a dear friend from a holiday in New Zealand.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Legalist Doctrine of Han Feizi (3rd century B.C.)

The essence of legalist doctrine is the use of sovereign law to secure the authority of the ruler, to harness the talents of the ministers, to keep harmony among the people, and to protect the peace from enemies abroad. In short, the aim is to make the state strong and to keep it under control. In this emphasis on the strong state it conflicts with traditional Confucian values that put neighbours and family first.

The essential energy of the state is focused on the knowledge and practice of agriculture and warfare. Agriculture is practiced in times of peace to fill the granaries, and warfare in times of war to repel invaders, preserve alliances and crush enemies. These two activities keep men busy and keep the state strong.

Rewards are clear, penalties severe. Punishments include ministers. Rewards include commoners. With these two levers of authority, the sovereign keeps control of the state. If he should ever be foolish enough to give either power away, then he will lose authority.

Everything has its specific function, every person has his specific qualification. The ruler just assign names. When names and forms are in agreement, superior and inferior are in harmony. The calamity of the ruler originates in self-assertion because his function is solely to rule, not to interfere. When the name exceeds the form, this deserves punishment. When the form exceeds the name, this too may be punished because it signals an attempt to gain favour or it takes away another's responsibility. To speak without knowing, or to not speak when one knows, both deserve to be punished. When forms and names match each other, then this deserves reward. Chastisement and commendation are the two handles by which fear of punishment and greed for reward are exercised.

"Rules and measures" is the sovereign's treasure. "Allies and followers" is the minister's treasure. Thus, the sovereign uses rules and measures to divide up alliances that could threaten his authority. If the ruler's personal bias of like and dislike are concealed, then the ministers' true hearts will be revealed. If the ministers reveal their true hearts, then the ruler will never be deluded. With laws and numbers that are definite and impartial, the ruler will not be deceived. Ministers must never realise wishes that are outside the rule of law, nor bestow favours that are within the rule of law. 

When high and low are connected, everything will be in order.

So it was that "the early kings esteemed legalism".

Thus advised Han Feizi. And he was killed for his troubles.

Comments: So we see how even an enlightened kind of authoritarianism, just like capitalism today, is based on fear and greed. It is successful precisely because it utilizes human nature instead of trying to change human nature. And yet, though endowed with external strength, the authoritarian and the capitalist society are both internally conflicted. When we all go for the same aim, whether it be power or money, naturally there is conflict. The ruler and the state want to be strong because they are afraid of the dark days, the days of war and lack that leave their imprint on our memory, on our history, on our subconscious, but by being afraid of the dark days, we are always living in the dark days. The only way out is if we could switch from this reactive victim-mentality to the creator-mentality. This is what Nietzsche spoke of in his "Genealogy of Morals", a summary of which you can read at the link. Indeed, we must overcome our greed and fear, and with gentle reason heal our inner conflicts.

Genealogy of Morality - Nietzsche

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Tagline:Beyond Good & Evil, not beyond good & bad!

Preface: Genealogy of the Genealogy

Nietzsche describes in his preface a personal genealogy of his project concerning morality’s history. The question of evil was the subject of his first philosophical essay — then, at the tender age of thirteen, he had attributed evil to God! But in order to tell of this and of the subsequent development of his ideas, he must rely on memory, on self-reflection, examining what had earlier occupied his thoughts, not on direct present experience. “We are unknown, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves”. Thus opens Nietzsche’s genealogy. A genealogy of morality presupposes a genealogy of truth, even of philosophers as “knowers” of truth, and perhaps also of oneself.

It is only over time, he says, that his thoughts have come to fruition, connected and interrelated into a unified philosophical enterprise, thanks to the development of both a new language and greater clarity within himself. He feels this unity more than he ever had in previous works such as “Human all Too Human”, both as fact and as duty in presentation. This sense of unity reinforces his confidence in what he wants to say, which ironically will be to ultimately deny unity to the goddess Philosophy that bedevils him (and society) with her objective ideals of Truth. If his fruits are not to our taste, “what matters that to the trees? What matters that to us, us the philosophers?” His are living subjective truths.

The question about the origin of evil is replaced by new questions: (1) how man came to invent such value-judgments as “good” and “evil”? (the historical conditions that led to their arising), and (2) whether these concepts possess intrinsic value in themselves to promote life, strength, fullness, courage, and human well-being? For what if, on the contrary, our idea of “good” were detrimental to humankind in the long-term? Nietzsche, skeptic but not nihilist, would like to see a revaluing of our values in terms of maximizing the long-term potentiality for human brilliance.

Paul Rée (1877) had suggested that our values derive from altruistic acts praised by others for their utility, and this reason for them being “good” is then forgotten, but Nietzsche disagrees that usefulness for the “other” could be forgotten since we would continuously be reminded of it. He rejects too what he regards as the more reasonable hypothesis of Herbert Spencer that “good” symbolizes unforgettable experiences of utility for the “other”.

For Nietzsche, the original (and truest) idea of “good” is a spontaneous overflowing of the noble self, who for itself defines this “good”. And yet Nietzsche also defines “good” as that which is worthy of being admired, and in this formulation he unwittingly approximates his rejected idea of “good” as rooted in the “other”. The “other” in this case would be the imagined admirer who admires only what is worthy of being admirable. Such a “worthy” observer would necessarily require a “good” imagination to imagine her, so Nietzsche’s “good” is after-all a most positive and self-reinforcing concept so far as it exists at all.

Nietzsche’s thesis is that the “morality of pity” and its culmination in the ascetic ideal of the philosopher and renunciant-priest are dangerous seductive temptations of society away from the original life-affirming self, confident in its own “goodness”, and a slide towards nihilism.

Nietzsche’s evidence that “good” was founded in the values of the noble races of antiquity is philological (from an analysis of Indo-European etymology) and historical (though his history is mostly imagined). Despite the inadequacy of Nietzsche’s history, his etymology is nevertheless convincing. The “simple” (“schlict”), once associated with “bad” (“schlect”), has over time come to mean the exact opposite: the simple man is the good man. Meanwhile, the aristocratic “good” which once meant the sincere, the clean, the successful, has taken on deadening moral overtones and become associated with the peaceful life. Nevertheless, it would be a genetic fallacy if we answered Nietzsche’s second question of whether our current conceptions were conducive to human flourishing on the basis of their original meanings and prejudices. What these changes reveal however is an inconsistency. This inconsistency forces us to doubt our inherited concepts, and to take his questions about morality seriously.

Not only does Nietzsche want to be read, but he wants to be ruminated upon, and the third essay in his book will be an example (based on an aphorism in “Thus Spake Zarathustra”) of what he imagines such a rumination should look like. He makes no small demand on his readers that they may “enjoy the halcyon element from which that work is born, in its sunny brilliance, its distance, its spaciousness, its certainty.” 

First Essay: Good & Evil

While Nietzsche admires the so-called “English psychologists” for being the first to dare examine the origins of our morals, he criticizes them for locating the “decisive element” of morality in passive principles: in man’s “forgetfulness”, “habit”, “stupidity”, in short on conditioning based on “error”. What a menagerie of “old frigid and tedious frogs hopping around men and inside men, as if they were as thoroughly at home there as they would be in a swamp” he quips.

According to Nietzsche, there is no antithesis between altruistic and egoistic to begin with because the first masters of language define “good” according to their own aristocratic values, and “bad” in contradistinction to it. Nor is there an antithesis between a subject and his or her actions, for there is no subject-predicate, no being behind doing — only doing, and so no sense of responsibility for being anything other than what one is: “good”. The actions of the master are “good” because it is master. This is master morality.

Meanwhile, other parts of the body-politic suffer. Unable to ease their suffering, they resent the master’s power. In a reversal, the master is seen as “evil”, and the weaker or slave-element in man defines itself as “good” (by this account then, “evil” comes first, the beginning of the gravest error, the creation of value based on resentment). This is the reactive slave morality that Nietzsche so abhors because he sees it as taming what was noble and active in man. The master in man is conditioned. Slave morality is based on prudence. It demands responsibility (the master, now separated from identification with the “good”, must take responsibility and make a choice to become “good”).

The master was foolish not to see it coming. But unlike the slave, he lacks cunning. Though cruel and violent at times, he knows no resentment except of the sort which he acts upon immediately. In contrast to seeing his enemy as “evil”, he reveres him as worthy of his distinction. It is only an active master-mentality that can go so far as to “love one’s enemy” as Jesus had preached (if such a thing is possible). Bearing no grudges, there is no question of forgiveness because all that is separated from action is forgotten. This is not a conditioned forgetfulness, but an active forgetting. In the same way, the sovereign individual is capable of an active remembering. The great will promises sparingly, conferring honour by its trust, knowing to its innermost depths that it is strong enough to fulfil its promise, “even in the teeth of disasters, even in the teeth of fate”. This is the true meaning of conscience, based on honour and supreme will.

The master is a sovereign individual. He is a symbol of the Apollonian overrun by the Dyonisian herd. As examples of this phenomenon, he cites the Reformation in reaction to the European Renaissance, and also the French Revolution. The latter, in a counter-reactive movement produced the terrible anachronism of “Napoleon, that synthesis of Monster and Superman” who represents “the incarnate problem of the aristocratic ideal in itself”, the ideal idealized. “May there not take place at some time or other a much more awful, much more carefully prepared flaring up of the old conflagration?” Nietzsche is uncertain whether he wishes for it or not. It is almost as if he has a bad premonition of being misunderstood by those who do not even know “what I exactly mean by that dangerous motto Beyond Good and Evil — at any rate that is not the same as beyond good and bad”.

In a way, weren’t the “English psychologists” right after all in locating our reactive sense of morality in our conditioning? And Nietzsche is right also to promote a more positive idea of conscience of the sovereign individual based on honour and supreme will. It is this good conscience which, in a reversal, has been undermined with resentment and unsatisfied revenge. In the third essay, we will see a second reversal whereby the resentment of slave morality is turned inward upon itself by the ascetic priest. The slave-element becomes itself “evil” and responsible for its own suffering. Nietzsche investigates this internalization of guilt, or so-called “bad conscience”, in his second essay, by which the priest gives meaning to suffering, for it is meaningless suffering which man cannot bear.

Second Essay: Bad Conscience

That supreme will to fulfil one’s promise — is it really a natural quality of the master, or is it burnt into the memory by pain? The history of man is replete with public and varied methods of torture and punishment that leave their scars in our collective unconscious. However, at least to begin with, Nietzsche claims that punishments were not based on guilt, but rather as the currency of exchange for some debt. In German, “Schuld” means guilt , while “Schulden” means debt. In English, we have a similar double-meaning of “ought” and “owe”.

Justice was not based on “right” and “wrong”, but on a coming-to-terms, by agreement where the parties were of equal strength, or compelling them to agree if they were not. Justice is not based on reactive feelings of resentment or revenge, but rather plays the role of a substitute-settlement softening the desire for revenge. It is a social exchange before it develops into the foundations of law.

Law restrains reactive feelings. It does not precede “right” and “wrong”, but rather founds them. The actor is separated from the action, held responsible for it, and to the extent it falls short, man as measurer of things inflicts a corresponding punishment.

The satisfaction in inflicting pain was measured against the duty unfulfilled. We balk at this today! How could inflicting pain be a satisfaction? But for the benefits of community life, Nietzsche believes that this was the price we had to pay, and we forget the ancient joy in cruelty, a joy we have repressed and turned inwards on ourselves. As the power of a community increases, so the need for punishment is mitigated. But “conversely, every weakening and jeopardising of the community revives the harshest forms of that law”.

Though revenge was not the original purpose of punishment, and law was conceived as an ordering power to be applied in exceptional conditions, everything which prevails anywhere “will always be put to new purposes by a force superior to itself”, in an overpowering that can extinguish any subsisting “meaning” it might have held. Indeed, the origin of a thing and its final utility are often utterly contrary to each other. There is no natural progression, only an appropriation by a greater will, with no ultimate arbiter, for this is so for the sovereign will itself. So law, in its own eventual overcoming by reactive values, is “conceived of as sovereign and universal”. In this form, it becomes antithetical to the power struggle itself, and thus “hostile to life”. Nietzsche approves of law at its inception where it regulated an exception in a struggle between a complex of powers, and was itself one such power. An example might be the law that insisted a break in fighting for lunch during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is the law that prohibits fighting altogether that Nietzsche finds oppressive.

Law also institutionalises punishment, which over the ages has been applied for very different reasons. The variation of reasons shows an incoherence in something whose meaning is normally taken for granted. This claim of incoherence is the essence of the genealogical approach to history which Foucault later applied more widely. The institution or habitual form of behaviour changes little over time, unlike the meaning which results from an imposition of will.

One meaning that punishment has never claimed to possess is the one we should most desire: a means to awaken intrinsic morality. On the contrary, it hardens and makes man cautious and cunning. People begin to obey the law not out of intrinsic morality but out of fear of punishment. Domesticated like animals, intrinsic morality or "good conscience" is like a muscle that grows weak through disuse. In the expectation of punishment, man represses his exuberant vivaciousness and turns his will to power and instinct for freedom against himself. The result is an internalized consciousness of guilt, what Nietzsche calls “bad conscience”.

This reflects a general principle for Nietzsche that psychological phenomena arise originally out of concrete social practices, and not the reverse. We are “guilty” because we are punished, not punished because we are “guilty”. This is not a form of philosophical materialism, just a claim that the psychological environment that led to the social practices was quite different from what these social practices themselves later brought about.

Bad conscience is the debt that can never be repaid. It turns against oneself, becomes active and seeks new and higher standards of customary morality. The purpose of these more and more demanding ideals is precisely that they are beyond reach, thus impossible to attain, perpetuating self-inflicted suffering. The devil is in the details! The result of this active bad conscience is a striving for self-improvement that creates much that is beautiful in the world, even the idea of beauty itself. If it is illness, it is so in the same way “as pregnancy is illness”.

Going back once again to the origins of this bad conscience, Nietzsche believes that the debt of obedience to society is transferred into a debt to ancestors and heroes who are revered as gods, the founders of society, ultimately becoming a debt to God, and thus a duty to ideals in themselves. The debt is too great to ever repay, and so no punishment can repay it. It is in this abject circumstance that Nietzsche conceives the Christian idea of Jesus, flesh of God, taking on man’s punishment while not assuaging his guilt, “the creditor playing scapegoat for his debtor, from love (can you believe it?), from love of his debtor!” Nietzsche contrasts this with the Greek gods who took on man’s guilt (which was “more noble”), whilst not lessening their punishment. The Greeks saw the vicissitudes of man as the result of foolishness (not sin), and how could aristocratic man fall prey to such folly? Why, “it must be that a god infatuated him”!

Nietzsche would like to see a reversal of religious conditioning based on fear and guilt, and a return to innocence. It is a different love that Nietzsche strives for, a love of free spirits “to whom conquest, adventure, danger, even pain, have become a need”, spirits of “great health”. It is the love that comes from letting ourselves go from the burden of bad conscience. “How conciliatory, how full of love does all the world show itself towards us so soon as we do as all the world does, and “let ourselves go” as all the world”. “In a stronger age than this rotting and introspective present” will come to us a redeemer of this great love, a redeemer of reality, “this Antichrist and Antinihilist — this conqueror of God and of Nothingness — he must one day come”. Nietzsche refers of course to his imagined prophet, Zarathustra, who might perhaps turn the very state of “bad conscience” against itself. But he catches himself in this hope that expresses nothing but his own bad conscience. The only proper response for him is silence.

Third Essay: The Ascetic Ideal

Nietzsche begins the third essay by describing the effects of the ascetic ideal: in artists “nothing or too much”, in women “the angelhood of a fat, pretty animal”, in the majority of mortals “an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a holy form of debauchery”, in priests an “engine of power”, in saints “a pretext for hibernation” and in philosophers “the conditions most favorable for advanced intellectualism”. 

In artists “nothing or too much” — what can he mean? Nietzsche felt that Richard Wagner’s paying homage to chastity, with his folk-hero Parsifal, was a betrayal because it was worshipping in old age what was in tragic antithesis to his own healthy sensuality of youth. The artist (like the philosopher) is only chaste by accident in so far as his energies are directed to higher pursuits, and so “there is no necessary antithesis between chastity and sensuality”. Even to the extent that there is conflict, this is something to celebrate as in Hafiz or Goethe, a further charm, a delicate balance that we are between animal and angel, something that allures one to life!

In any case, art should not be judged by the artist who is “after all merely the presupposition of his work, the womb, the soil, in certain cases the dung and manure on which and out of which it grows.” The question of origins is one for psychologists and vivisectors, but never for aesthetes and artists themselves. And so when it comes to art, ascetic ideals mean nothing because the art stands alone. As for the artists themselves, it means too much, a betrayal to nothingness.

There follow diatribes against both Kant and Schopenhauer, the latter whom he thinks unduly influenced Wagner into his volte face. Beauty is not without self-interest as Kant had insisted, nor a sublimation of libido as Schopenhauer had claimed. Nietzsche believes rather in Stendhal, whom he thinks, as an artist, knows the truth of these things better. Stendhal famously described the beautiful as une promesse de bonheur, “a promise of happiness”. Is Stendhal right?

Nietzsche believes Schopenhauer’s conception of beauty is confused not only by what is peculiar to Schopenhauer (perhaps for example his need for enemies in Hegel, woman, sensuality and the “will for existence” — passions of enmity which “kept him going”), but what is peculiar to him as a “youth of twenty-six”, implying his excess of sexual interest influenced his philosophical judgment. Schopenhauer’s sublimation of libido in beauty represents a certain insight to Nietzsche, the use of beauty as “escape from a torture”, and what is that if not self-interest?

The philosophical animal strives for ascetic ideals, and for Kantian disinterest, because the idyllic state they bring about results in an optimum of productivity for the intellectual life. It is hubris that philosophers prize ascetic ideals because they epitomize philosophical self-interest. Nietzsche makes a list of great unmarried philosophers, all the greatest philosophers he claims (apart from Socrates), and no doubt comforts himself to be among them. “The philosopher shuns three brilliant and noisy things — fame, princes and women”, and he does this out of an overriding maternal instinct for what is best in himself. “A married philosopher belongs to comedy”, he jeers. He is writing of course before either A. J. Ayer or Jean-Paul Sartre, both notorious womanizers. He means perhaps by all this that his own rejected proposal for Lou Salomé’s hand has been of untold benefit to philosophy.

So, unlike Kant, Nietzsche insists on the sensuality of the aesthetic state, possessing a “sweetness and fulness”, just as the idealism of adolescent youth is a form of sensuality, but it is sensuality transfigured and so not witnessed as sexual excitement.

The hubris of the philosopher would deny us the sensual pleasure. But how has it come to this? “All good things were once bad things”. Philosophy would have been “absolutely impossible in the world without the ascetic priest”, and ascetic ideals involve reversals in morality that the priest has helped bring about.

What is the real meaning of ascetic ideals? The ascetic ideal is the belief that in principle it is bad to exercise the will. It gives meaning to one’s own weakness and suffering as a consequence of activity being evil. In the long run, it starts a self-reinforcing debilitating cycle that increases suffering.

In the Christian setting, Nietzsche sees “innocent” therapies for suffering in prescribing work, the doing of good deeds, and finding joy in the joy of others, all these an expression of an infinitesimal communal will to power. Meanwhile, the “guilty” therapies for suffering are the ascetic practices which equate man’s suffering with sin: not only are we responsible for our suffering, but guilty for it. Nietzsche, of course, believes that there are no such things as moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena. Concepts are like coins whose images have been effaced to leave mere tokens, dominated by will, and he would deny any metaphysics of slave morality. Moreover, since all these therapies do not treat underlying physiological problems, they offer hope but rarely effect a cure.

The ascetic or “guilty” practices take two interrelated forms: introspection (examining what you have done, and what impulse to activity is causing your suffering), and the will to truth (pursued and acted upon for its own sake as if it has value over everything else). The will to truth is inherently an ascetic phenomenon because it is the turning of the will against what one might otherwise like to believe. Honesty to oneself is based on the moral imperative not to deceive others. It is in fact the very core of the ascetic ideal once all the outer scaffolding of religion is cast off.

Nietzsche is himself an example of someone who has developed these two facets of the ascetic ideal, introspection and truth, to their limits, and he wishes to reveal that it has been a dubious enterprise. In its inevitable fruition, it involves a dissolution of dogma, morality, and truth itself. Nietzsche sees Christian values as nihilistic because they negate vitality. In second-order nihilism that rejects nihilistic values, we don’t find ourselves back at where we started because this is not a dialectic: not (not A) ≠ A. So in the rejection of nihilism, we really end up worse off. This is a paradoxical situation because it is the ascetic ideal itself which has brought this about. 

He sees a precursor to this 2500 years ago in Indian history with the teachings of Buddha. Are we to expect a corresponding European Buddhism? Nietzsche sees this as the ascetic ideal with the mask torn off, the apogee of reactive slave morality. But perhaps he is mistaken. After all, the way of Zen is often known as the warrior path, and the same is true in all the great mystical traditions. There is no question of shrinking from the world, and on the contrary the challenge is to keep the heart open, compassionate and accepting. Buddha himself famously rejected asceticism. Finally, reactive slave morality requires a metaphysics of self upon which to turn inwards, whereas the essence of Buddha's teaching, which distinguished it from everything that had come before, is the idea of “no-self” (in Pali, anatta). It was with the creation of the metaphysical self that saw itself as “good” or “evil” that the whole of this history of our fall from innocence followed.

Does Nietzsche himself provide a positive alternative? There is the will to power, biological fitness, cultural productivity, and perhaps encapsulating all of these: the phenomenon of being worthy of admiration. Nietzsche is not attacking the good/bad or true/false distinction, for example as regards whether something is worthy of being admired, but rather the theories of truth that presuppose truth as the highest value. We see this in science and philosophy as well as religion. Rather, Truth for Nietzsche is a woman. We recall the aphorism from “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, from which this essay grew: “Careless, mocking, forceful — so does wisdom wish us: she is a woman, and never loves any one but a warrior”.

In summary, Nietzsche is offering a Dionysian corrective to self-conscious reactive morality that hinders man's natural instincts to pursue one's desires. This short book is brilliant in the sense that so many seminal ideas of 20th century philosophy can be traced back to some paragraph or sentence that we could imagine might have been the inspiration (Freud's “Totem & Taboo”, Freud's psychological repression, Derrida's “Force of Law”, Agamben's state of exception, Foucault's “Discipline & Punish”, Foucault's genealogical method to name but a few).

And yet in this Dionysian-style critique, Nietzsche neglects the value of the Apollonian from which, as he admits, beauty itself is born, and Dionysus imagined made-flesh. “I swear to Apollo” is the Hippocratic oath, self-conscious of one's metaphysical being as persona having duty to the other. That too has a place in our moral outlook, does it not?

As for Truth, as for Socrates, we are observers of the world, but we are also artists (or we should be, as Socrates in Plato's “Phaedo” says he was instructed in dreams) and Truth is the picture-frame that bridges art and observation. Truth is what lets us appreciate creation as art, to represent and share it, for in order for creation to be productive it must also be social. It must not be allowed to upset our own balance between reactive and active forces, Ascetic and Superman. It is for the alchemy of these two that we strive. In the spirit of an old Buddhist proverb, we must kill and transcend both: to reject Buddhism and become Buddha, to reject Christianity and become Christ. Self-knowledge is not the metaphysical objectification of the self, nor its subjective affirmation. The true meaning of self-knowledge is self-love, “when the two become one”.

Nietzsche is like the man in Plato's allegory of the cave who has been dragged into the sunlight and suffers from the sight. But unlike that story, he finds no comfort in Truth, unwilling to accept her, and so it is grudgingly that he spreads the “bad news”.

To conclude, what thrills you into activity? Do that! ...with a humble Will to Heart!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Authentic Speech (in memory of Rosa Parks)

We are what we think,
Arising out of our thoughts,

Our thoughts make the world.

Speak with impure mind

And trouble will follow you

As the wheel the ox.

We are what we think,

Arising out of our thoughts,

Our thoughts make the world.

Acting with pure mind,

Happiness will follow you,

Your faithful shadow.

These four verses that begin the Dhammapada correspond neatly to the four meanings of dhamma according to Buddhadasa: nature itself, the law of nature, the duty that must be performed according to that law of nature, the fruits or benefits that arise from the performance of that duty.  

I have been reflecting about "right speech" — what makes speech an authentic act?, especially when concerning issues of the world when speech becomes essentially political, and all the pitfalls this involves . Against these pitfalls, let us keep in mind two ideals of authentic political speech acts: Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat for a white man on a segregated bus, an act of power that assumed her equal rights and denounced a racist law & Martin Luther King's famous speech "I have a dream", an excerpt of which is at the end. 

In memory of Rosa Parks (1913-2005), born a hundred years ago.

Rosa Parks: “When I made that decision, I knew 
that I had the strength of my ancestors with me.”

In my experience, I am very uncomfortable with any kind of speech whose intention is to change opinions, except as a means of self-reflection to question my own ideas, or among friends to show perspective and balance to a point of view even if that point of view is one I agree with, or among anonymous others but only if I am in a genuine position of being better-informed or if there is some terrible apathy and I feel something positive and concrete could come about if only enough could awaken from slumber. In short, I am wary of any kind of political speech, unless I am genuinely in a position of knowledge or power to make change into a reasonable possibility, and I rarely feel this.

There is a saying which stuck in my head and inspired this blog. "Every little thing we can do makes a difference." This makes me feel a little guilty about my reticence, and I wonder what causes it? The first reason is discouragement of what difference I could make outweighing the courage to speak. But courage is born of authenticity, and I am hopeful that if I were ever in a position of authentic opportunity, then any fear would melt in the face of this conviction. However, there are two other reasons which go to the heart of what it would mean for such a speech act to be authentic: power and knowledge.

I am not comfortable with online petitions. Even if they are obvious, and I totally support them, wouldn't it be an act of self-importance to think that my name would make a difference? My opinions for example in favour of peace, tolerance and kindness in this world should be taken for granted. Worse still, it is an act of helplessness, expecting an external fix. All I have to offer such a petition is my opinion, my name reduced to a 'yes' or a 'no'. Is this really an act of engagement? It is at least a sign of engagement, the first murmurs of breath in the body that there is still care in the world. But it's both too easy and too much. It is too easy, and too easy too ignore. It is both an act of courage, and also an act of potential regret. It is a politicisation of the self that was formerly represented and accounted for indirectly, without the benefit of any corresponding political power to act on behalf of itself. It is mere hope in the face of hopelessness of changing the minds of those in power. In capitalist democracy today, it is said that if you want to make governments and corporations pay heed to the demands of the many, you must hit them where it hurts: the polling station and the pocket. In fact, they care a lot for reputation also, so the media can be powerful too. And raising one's voice, whether personally or impersonally, can feed into the media storm of scrutiny, and can really bring about authentic change. Words can be powerful, as long as they are heard!

But then how does a political speech act differ from a political campaign? The latter has come to take on a narrower meaning, politics reduced to political parties, but in the broader sense of the political, a successful drive to change the opinions of others is a campaign which is heard. I am equally uncomfortable with the idea of campaigning, the active partner of petitioning, and for a different reason: of knowledge. I would never wish to participate in the rhetorical power-jostling that constitutes traditional political speech. I listen to it enough to know its childish repetitiveness and scare-mongering, its privileging of perceived opinion over fact, how cleverly it is designed to influence the media storm of approval of oneself and disapproval of the other side, how precisely it paints the world in black and white, how well it masks the lone voices, the real authentic ones who have something genuine to say. If in striving for authentic speech, we drown out the authentic speech of others in the overall noise we create, then what benefit is that? When all is silent, even the dropping of a pin can be heard in an empty hall. It is not volume that counts so much as being heard, and the more voices are raised, the greater the threshold of deafness and indifference (in the media, or for those in power) before they can no longer be ignored. If a petition is signed by a hundred people, or a hundred thousand march in peaceful protest, its meaning comes to very little because it is expected. What is necessary is harmony, an insistence impossible not to hear, unusual, undeniable, challenging fixed assumptions that change is unlikely or undesirable, and beyond all duality of us and them.

For a political speech act to be authentic it must hope for a positive effect in more than just words. Words are indeed a foundation for action. It must support those whom we would wish to be supported if we were in their position. It must be selflessness, not born of ego, not bringing attention to oneself or done in order to assuage our guilt, but directed towards a common cause, to ideals we want represented and giving voice to the voices that would otherwise go unheard. Grandstanding separates, inspiration unites. It must be born of knowledge, but it must also be a way unto self-knowledge. Among friends, it is based on communication and friendship. Among those whom we do not know, it is based on courage and a genuine engagement. It is based on an assumed power, and not the complaint of the powerless. It is not the expression of an emotion, but the expression of the questions that gave rise to that emotion.

Finally, and this is what gives me comfort in my discomfort about political speech, not everyone has to be the flame: some are the ignition, some the fuel, some the inspiration to encourage and motivate others. Perhaps we each have our different places in the whole. We don't all have to be everything, so long as we follow our heart!

Acknowledgments: to friends and contributors here and here who helped provide some of the substance for this post.

Martin Luther King
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Desiderata of Hope (Max Ehrmann)

Three poems by American poet Max Ehrmann, most famous for his Desiderata.

I sit and smile at myself

I sit and smile at myself,
As deep into the dark I dream and write.
What boots it to me that I should waste my youth
And burn the oil of night?
For I'll but live my little day
     And then away.

I sit and smile at myself,
As dreaming, half the sweet of life I miss,
And beat my soul against the deadened wall
Of fate, and lose the kiss
Of love and laughter light,
     As here I write.

I sit and smile at myself,
And yet as I dip oar into life's swift sea,
I somehow feel that I, poor fool, still do
The work that's meant for me.
So on and on and on I write
     Into the night.

Sing on, O singers all!
(A voice calls out) sweet dreamers, dream yet on
And chant and chant upon the beach of night,
Until the graying dawn
Finds flags of brotherhood unfurled
     Across the world.

For life's a battle hard
And singers still must come from out the throng
To soften them who in the hot pursuit
Will listen to a song.
So spin thy lays in ringing rhyme
     At midnight time.

This be excuse enough,
Thou scribbling, ever scratching, jingling seer,
And in the final counting of the world,
When each man's page is clear,
And all is o'er with earth's wild pace,
     Thou'lt have thy place.

We sit and judge

We sit and judge without delay
On how each one betakes his way,
And laugh at every narrow man
Who can't enjoy the things we can,
And deep in Hades, souls we plant,
That can enjoy the things we can't.

Sleep Sweetly

Sleep sweetly now that the gates of the
     crimson night are closed, and leave
     tomorrow's struggle for tomorrow;
The earth is peaceful, only the stars and still moon
     are abroad, and they wage no war.

Painting: 'Towards a Better World' by Luis Ricardo Falero