On New Ageism and western appropriations of eastern religion

By ‘New age’ I mean the uprooting of concepts from eastern religions and their implementation into a western, specifically capitalist culture.

The possibility of such an implementation is consequent on the way eastern religious concepts capitalize on tensions between a) those aspects of society that are vestiges of a civilization animated by Christianity, and b) enlightenment rationalism, and c) the demands of a growing consumer culture oriented around the conspicuous consumption of purchased goods.

Relative to western monotheistic counterparts, eastern religions accord less importance to both concrete events (and consequently to both symbolism and history),and to the concepts of sin and final judgment. Instead of these, eastern religions tend to be more abstract and ahistorical, are more likely to conceive of good and evil in terms of cosmic balance rather than personal sin and righteousness, and provide concepts of cyclical death and rebirth in place of those of final judgment and reward.

Relative to western enlightenment rationalism, eastern religions – like the east generally – are understood to be mystical rather than rational. Hence, eastern religious discourse is understood to speak to ethical or emotive concerns, in contradistinction to factual matters. In this respect, 20th and 21st century western appropriations of eastern religion in the New Age movement are analogous to 19th century Romantic appropriations of the middle ages.

All of the above are characteristics where New Age religion compares well with the aims of American consumerism precisely where they conflict with traditional western monotheism. The tendency to downplay positive ethical action and motivations and instead emphasize the contribution to the whole mirrors that found in capitalist understandings of the human person as producer contributing to value-indifferent measures like GDP: the whole appears to work even if its participants are motivated by greed and self-interest. The ahistoricity and non-symbolic bent of eastern religion works against both specifically Christian sacramentalism and the attachment to events and places common across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this respect, it provides support to enlightenment rationalist traditions relative to older religious traditions. But against rationalism and in accord with modern consumerism, it elevates will and feeling against reason. In this way, it provides weight to the consumerist tendency to view things in terms of their ability to satisfy desires or to interfere with inner tranquility, thereby providing incidental support to the effort to monetize the satisfaction of these desires and the maintenance of a state of personal equilibrium –as is seen, for instance, in yoga studios and meditation apps. The absence of a central notion of final judgment is leveraged to minimize self-harm and foster an attitude of self-esteem, the latter of which is strengthened by the pantheistic elements within eastern religions which encourage self-identification with a deity.

But New Age religion stands with western consumerism, against historic eastern religious practice, in several important respects. First, it presupposes a late western distinction between the mystical and the rational precisely to set the former off in a realm where its claims cannot be rationally judged. Next, it while eastern religions do place less emphasis on symbolism and historicity than their western counterparts, New Age appropriations minimize this role further, downplaying the role of symbols and storytelling in eastern texts like the Baghavad Gita and the Zhuangzi. Third, having focused on the more abstract content, it then interprets this in accordance with a western distinction between the internal self and the external world as a one between realms of values and facts. In this way, rather than being instantiated in group practices, New Age treatments of eastern religion almost entirely internalize and psychologize them. In this way, those practices which are appropriated become subsumed under western categories of mental and physical wellness, where they can be marketed to those unsatisfied with their current life in just about any respect. In this way, they serve as a monetized, purely internalized substitution for traditional communal western monotheistic practices of redemption of the self.

On how events have meaning, 3

Welcome back. Over the past week, I’ve been discussing focusing on the question ‘how, if at all, do events have meaning?’ The question was opened by the tragic case of the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral at the beginning of last week, which I’ll eventually return to. Since then, I’ve been examining a different, likewise tragic example, namely the September 11th attacks. We’ve already established that one way in which events come to have symbolic meaning is by virtue of the symbolic meaning of the things involved in those events, e.g. because the World Trade Center was a symbol of finance capitalism, an attack on it could be construed as an attack on the latter. Furthermore, one common way in which things are able to symbolize other things is by virtue of having those things as their ends. Related to this, a term may also symbolize some way of failing to meet the end that is nevertheless connected with it, either by way of excess or by way of defect. In this way, this part of the symbolic meaning of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the intended attack on the White House could all be expressed by uniformly replacing the names of the objects themselves with the names of what they stand for in sentences that straightforwardly express the original meaning.

In the same example, we haven’t yet addressed the manner in which the date – traditionally associated with the battle of Vienna, a battle in which the Christian army of the Polish king Jan Sobieski held off the advancing forces of the Ottoman Empire – itself comes to have symbolic meaning. This is a more interesting case for a number of reasons. First, there is the question of how this particular event, among countless others on the same calendar day, comes to be associated with the later attack. Second, there is some disagreement about whether those who planned the attack themselves intended the association with the anniversary. Third, though preparations were already in place on the 11th, the Polish advance did not begin until the morning of the 12th.

That the date remains an important part of the meaning of the event thus suggests a number of things: first, that an event may have a symbolic meaning independent of, or even contrary to, the intent of its principal agents. To take another example, the Christian interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth on the Jewish Passover as a symbolic reenactment of the Passover sacrifice itself was not merely orthogonal to the intent of the Roman guards who carried out the execution, but also actively antithetical to the intent of the Pharisees who pushed for it: it strengthened the belief, which they vigorously denied, that Jesus was the anointed messiah of God. In short, the meaning of an event need not depend on the intent of its principal agents.

We’ll delve further into these cases tomorrow.

Highlighted posts for April 14-20, 2019

This week includes two highlighted posts:

The first, in political philosophy, examines the differences between the concepts of libertarianism, subsidiarity, federalism, nationalism, states’ rights, and racism. In modern political discourse, the first three of these concepts are frequently conflated with each other, and sometimes are polemically linked with the latter three. I show that the political philosophy of libertarianism and the principle of subsidiarity are strictly orthogonal to each other. Further, while libertarianism and nationalism are materially inconsistent with each other, nationalism itself can be understood as an expansion of the main concepts libertarianism affords to individuals to nation-states.

The second, ‘A glimpse of early Hebrew metaphysics in the book of Genesis‘, combines themes from the study of ancient history, biblical interpretation, and metaphysics, to show how errors in the interpretation of a text – in this case, the description of the sisters Leah and Rachel in the book of Genesis – can arise from more fundamental shifts in metaphysics.

On how events can have meaning, 2

That events can have symbolic meanings can be shown from paradigm cases (note: this is how induction was generally understood to work prior to some changes in the concept in the late medieval period) : the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, for instance, and the attempted attack on the White House on the same day, were rightly interpreted as respectively targeting American imperialism in war, finance capitalism in economics, and representative democracy in political economy. Understanding these three as pillars of contemporary western civilization, the attack was viewed as an attack on western civilization itself. The date of the attack, on the anniversary of two critical defensive victories for western Christian armies over Muslim advancements (the end of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, and especially the beginning of the Battle of Vienna in 1683), suggested a renewed struggle between Western, specifically Christian, and Islamic civilizations.

In the above instances, the meaning of the event is taken from the meaning its parts: the attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on finance capitalism because the World Trade Center was already an established symbol of the latter. The case is similar with the attack on the pentagon and the planned attack on the White House. The meaning of the event in each case is expressed by substituting some symbolized being for what symbolizes it in a sentence straightforwardly describing the original event.

Going further, the World Trade Center was able to be a symbol of finance capitalism because the buildings themselves were places dedicated to its practice. The Pentagon was seen as a symbol of American imperialism because it was a sight for the planning of military strategy and operations, and imperialism is necessarily a way of failing, by way of excess, to carry out the essential task of a military. The White House serves as a symbol for democratic governance because it is likewise dedicated to that end. In short, the first and third substitutions are each of a being with its end, while the second is of a being with a way of falling away from its prescribed end.

A glimpse of early Hebrew metaphysics in the book of Genesis

At Genesis 29:16-17, we find the following description of Laban’s daughters, both of whom the patriarch Jacob would wed.

‘Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. (NIV)’

The translation in other versions is similar. The King James Version, for instance, has ‘Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured’. The Hebrew text calls Leah rak`ayin, which is fairly well-represented by the KJV text above. The Latin Vulgate has ‘Sed Lia lippis erat oculis: Rachel decora facie, et venusto aspectu. – ‘But Leah was with watery/inflamed eyes; Rachel, [with] stately face and beautiful appearance.’ The Greek Septuagint (which predates the earliest extant Hebrew text) states that Leah’s eyes were ασθενεις – literally, ‘lacking in strength’ (οι δε οφθαλμοι λειας ασθενεις ραχηλ δε καλη τω ειδει και ωραια τη οψει)

That the original meaning of the text is not conveyed by any of the above is clear from its context: the current text has Leah’s weak eyes contrast with Rachel’s beautiful appearance. But the state of Leah’s eyes is not the right type of thing to contrast with Rachel’s beauty.

There is, however, something in the vicinity that does belong to an appropriate contrast class: Leah’s sight – not, that is, her capacity to see, but rather the sight of her, how she appears to others.

The original sense of the text would be that Leah was a weak sight – or, if Saint Jerome was cribbing from a Greek variant, a fat sight (lippus is cognate with the Greek λίπος, ‘fat’) – while Rachel was beautiful. We’ll assume the first.

It’s unlikely that a text that unambiguously referred to Leah’s appearance would have been corrupted to the point of referring instead to her eyes. What’s more likely is that an ambiguity in the original meaning was lost.

Today, sight is regarded as a power present in an organ, namely the eye. The appearances of things external to the eye is itself consequent on this power to see. In more extreme forms of this view, qualities like color and brightness do not exist in the thing, but in the mind: beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder. In this construal, the being of a certain class of beings (the look of things) is reduced to that of a power (sight), which is in turn reduced back to the being of a part (the eye), which is itself grounded in the being of a subclass of objects (sighted animals).

But this isn’t the only way to view the matter. Alternatively, one can begin with the being of the sight itself taken as a whole, within which the seer, the seen, the showing of the seen as its manifestation to a seer, etc., all play various roles. The term used to refer to the whole can then be transferred by synecdoche to its various parts, with different specified interpretations appropriate to different uses. Words like ‘look’ and ‘sight’ still have this ambiguity in English today. Over time, words sometimes ossify to refer to a part where they once referred to a whole. Hence, the English ‘deer’ is cognate with the German Tier, ‘animal’, while ‘jealous’ and ‘zealous’ partition positive and neutral-charged versions of a phenomenon described by the same Greek root.

But in the biblical case, the direction of the reduction is important. In the thinking of the passage we’ve charted out, one finds a weakness in the sight of Leah, and a sight of beauty with Rachel. In the reductive reading, it is not merely that the sight of Leah’s is reduced to the wrong object – her eyes, rather than her appearance – the same reduction is present ‘correctly’ with Rachel’s beauty: it is no longer what is present with her in the event of her presence before Jacob; instead, it is a property of her appearance which stands opposite the eye of Jacob. In the second case, then, the reduction of the whole to a relation of properties to objects brings with it a duplication of correlated properties, e.g. the gaze of Jacob and others, and the task of explaining their correlation.

From this arise the two characteristic tasks of later western metaphysics everywhere we find it: the explanation of the unity of being by reduction of some beings to others as real, and by the correspondence of beings which belong together as truth.

The political philosophy of distributism: a very short introduction

What is distributism?

Distributism is a political ideal according to which property ownership should be as widely distributed as feasible.

How does distributism differ from capitalism?

Taken broadly, ‘capitalism’ refers to an economic system wherein property ownership is private. Its opposite is socialism, a system in which private ownership does not exist. In this sense, distributism is a political ideal that may be achieved within a capitalist system.

In practice, the term ‘capitalism’ often has a more specific meaning than that above, referring to a
system wherein property is concentrated in the hands of a few, and markets purportedly operate with little or no government interference. In this more restricted sense, distributism differs from capitalism, in that its policies aim at the establishment of property in more hands.

Notwithstanding political mythology to the contrary, capitalism and distributism don’t differ with respect to quantity of government interference: they differ with respect to its aims.

In capitalism, government intervention often occurs in order to enforce the rights of the few over the many (e.g. property and patent laws), to coerce the many to work for the few (e.g. laws connecting welfare to seeking employment), and to set up the few as the caretakers of the many (e.g. laws exempting workers from liability, and requiring liability of employers). That is, capitalist use of government intervention tends towards the establishment of what Hilaire Belloc called the Servile State – an arrangement of society according to which the masses are granted a minimal level of security and care, but lack substantial wealth or political capital, and are under the mercy of those few rich persons granted legal responsibility over them in various ways.

How does distributism differ from socialism?

Though the term has come to have a broad range in popular discourse, ‘socialism’ strictly refers to a system in which the right to private property is abolished. Distributism is one wherein it is affirmed. The difference is that the one affirms, the other denies, a right to private property.

In practice, socialist policies tend towards the establishment not of social ownership, but – like
capitalism – of the Servile State. That is, they tend towards the establishment of control of property in the hands of a few, who are granted the responsibility to care for the masses at the behest of the state. So distributism differs practically from socialism in exactly the way that it differs from capitalism, because these latter tend in practice to the same thing.

Is distributism a hybrid of left and right thought on economics?

No. It is better to regard the left and the right as closer to each other than usually suggested.
Government interference on both the left and the right tends toward the establishment of the Servile State. Distributist economic interventions aim at its abolition.

One important way socialist and distributist economic regulations often differ is in that the former tend to be ‘positive’ interventions, while the latter are more often ‘negative’ interventions.

Positive interventions include things like the establishment of bureaucracies to handle economic
necessities for the poor, health care, college costs etc. When these exist in a mixed capitalist-socialist economy, big businesses often leverage market forces to effectively turn these subsidies into a new ‘floor’ relative to product demand, and product costs go up. In this way, positive interventions both create large managerial bureaucracies and often translate in practice into indirect subsidization of large corporations. In the absence of corresponding negative interventions, they also tend toward the ballooning of government debt.

Negative interventions advocated by distributists include things like differential taxation relative to the number of stores owned or number of areas in which a ‘big-box’ company trades, the enforcement of anti-trust legislation, the taxation of ‘externalities’ like highways and pollution, and generally, various uses of taxation to directly prevent companies from serving too many sectors or too much of one sector. To the degree that negative interventions tend to involve less bureaucracy than positive interventions where the transfer of wealth must be directly managed, distributist interventions tend to be fewer, less invasive, and more efficient. Their difficulty is a purely political one: it is politically easier to advocate for subsidies than penalties, even when penalties would be of greater benefit to the class targeted for benefit than direct subsidization.

How does distributism handle the distribution of goods?

It doesn’t. That’s the beauty of it. In an economy where wealth is well-distributed, and the laws tend to prevent its concentration, this is accomplished by what Smith called ‘the invisible hand of the market’.

In this connection, it is important to see just how often this myth of the invisible hand fails to apply in typical capitalist economies. In practice, capitalism doesn’t use markets to manage everything: prices are often set in various ways by large monopolies, in a way not substantially different than in a socialist planned economy. For instance, a large supermarket chain that owns the store fronts, the factories that make the bread sold in the stores, the trucks used to transport the product, etc. does not determine the prices of its internal transactions by the market. Likewise, fisheries dependent on having their products sold by large chains aren’t in a position to sell their goods at a better price to different stores: the price for their labor are effectively dictated to them by those who control the means of distribution. Hence, product cost in archetypical capitalist economies is often determined much more bureaucratically than capitalist rhetoric would suggest.

By advocating policies that weaken and sometimes directly break up these large conglomerates,
distributists allow the costs of goods to more accurately reflect their true market price, and hence to achieve the equality requisite for a genuinely free and competitive market.

Previously published at https://www.imagodeipolitics.org/2017/08/16/the-political-philosophy-of-distributism-a-very-short-introduction/

On how events have meaning, 1

notre-dame-cathedral-stained-glass-window-rose-religion-e93c67-1024.jpgAs I began writing this, Notre Dame Cathedral was burning. I visited and attended mass at the cathedral just this past June, while on a trip to France to do manuscript research in Paris and present at a logic conference in Vichy. I broke down in tears upon coming home as I tried to tell my wife what had happened.

Inevitably, one comes to question the meaning of all of this. This, in turn, prompts the question of whether the question ‘what is the meaning of all this’, referring to this or any event, is even a sensible one. As many would have it, asking for the meaning of an event is a senseless question, like asking for the weight of pi.

To think through this question requires one to begin by taking the data given in these sorts of common phrases seriously. This is not to say that every question is ultimately a meaningful one. But it is to say that advancement on any given issue, even to the conclusion that the issue at hand is meaningless, is only made by following a path of inquiry. This, in turn, requires a kind of fidelity to the matter that presents itself which is incompatible with naysaying. Blessed is he who sits not in the seat of the scoffers.