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Girard, Buddhism and Free Will
This week’s research note is on Johnathan Bi, whose second visit to Infinite Loops is scheduled for release on December 15th (check out episode 116 for his first appearance).
Johnathan has written extensively on the philosopher René Girard, and recently launched a brilliant lecture series on Girard with friend-of-the-show David Perell.
Let’s dive in. As ever, if you have comments or questions please don’t hesitate to give us a shout in the comments or on our Twitter.
The Scapegoat Mechanism
The Buddhist Solution
Echo Chambers, Ideological Conformity and Stagnation
Theme 1: Mimesis
Mimesis is our fundamental capacity to imitate. Girard takes this to be the driving force behind a huge amount of social phenomena.
Two forces in particular underpin mimesis: shame and transference.
Shame is a “drive towards substance: a yearning to make one’s being “real” in some sense.”
Transference “aims at identifying the cause of one’s shame or the cause for the resolution of one’s shame.”
Girard “takes the cause for one’s shame to always be complex and multifaceted, yet transference is only satisfied if it can single out and hold responsible one single source.”
There is a well-established tradition of examining mimesis in the context of non-acquisitive aspects of others such as language and customs. Girard’s contribution is to focus on instances where we imitate the desires of others. This can be termed ‘memetic desire’.
Memetic desire can operate negatively as well as positively. In other words, even breaking away from the group can be socially determined. We distance ourselves to show superiority. Breaking away from a group in this way is no more authentic than conforming to it, because the choice is ultimately made due to what it says about you.
The type of memetic desire that features most heavily in Girard is ‘metaphysical desire’. This is the “desire to acquire objects not for their inherent qualities but to be like a model who also desires or already possesses the object.” An example of this Johnathan often cites is ‘Be like Mike’. We don’t want a Gatorade so that we are better at basketball. We want it so we can be Michael Jordan.
With metaphysical desire, the strength of the desire is not contingent on any innate quality of the object. The desire has a reality of its own based on the desirability of the model. We are hunting for ‘metaphysical autonomy’. This means that what we are aiming for and what we want are entirely separate.
It is impossible to achieve metaphysical autonomy. Unless we renounce metaphysical autonomy as a goal, we will experience constant shame. Unless we renounce it, we will constantly be searching for models who we deem to have metaphysical autonomy, and will constantly want to attain the objects such models desire or possess.
Johnathan adds his own spin to Girard’s theory by arguing that the realm of human motivation consists of two drivers: metaphysical desire (identity) and physical desire (utility). Memetic desire always contains within it, to varying degrees, each of these types of desires. “The transition from mimetic to metaphysical desire is marked by an intensification of the metaphysical dimension of mimetic desire combined with a crowding out of any physical considerations for the object.” Other accounts of Girard tend to focus purely on the desire ‘to be’ at the expense of the desire ‘to experience’.
Johnathan also argues that an influential strand of modern thought overlooks the spirit (in the Platonic sense) – meaning the part of the soul that pursues social standing / social self-preservation. He argues that we systematically focus on humans as rational, utility calculating machines.
By failing to take account of the spirit, modern theories (1) fail to grasp the varied and brutal ways in which antagonism can manifest between subjects, and (2) fail to direct us towards attaining positive social community relationships. He concludes by arguing that the search for spirit is in effect the search for metaphysical autonomy. The spirited part of the soul is acquisitive mimesis – the hunt for metaphysical autonomy through the means of mimesis. Girard’s theory thus ‘rescues the spirit’.
How can we determine the extent to which metaphysical desire is the driver behind a decision (relative to physical desire)?
Can outcomes of decisions be used to retrospectively determine the extent to which mimesis drove the decision in the first place? For example, if someone buys an object, does the extent to which they then enjoy that object / don’t get bored with it offer an insight into whether the desire for that object in the first place was driven by metaphysical or physical desire? If so, then one can conceive of an experiment / research project which retrospectively models the relative weighting of metaphysical desire on various fields of human decision making.
There is an instrumental interpretation to Girard’s theory that I haven’t seen Johnathan discuss. Given that metaphysical desire is (a) hugely powerful, and (b) mediated by a ‘model’, this suggests that if you can become high status to a given social group (i.e. become a ‘model’) you can wield profound psychological influence. This has terrifying implications. Does Johnathan agree with this potential instrumental reading of Girard? Could one intentionally leverage their status as a model?
A question that often gets asked in respect of mimesis is whether the concept is falsifiable. If everything can be explained by mimesis, nothing can be explained by mimesis. Johnathan was asked this on another podcast and his response was that mimesis can be falsified via introspection. Can he expand on this? How practically would introspection serve to falsify mimesis?
Johnathan has argued that strands of modern philosophy and theory systematically discount the Platonic concept of the ‘spirit’, being the part of the soul that wants social standing. Johnathan also argues that, in discounting the spirit, modern strands of theory are “deficient in guiding us towards the human good. Even worse, since what we are deprived of is an inherently social good – none other than a relation with others – we would lack the intellectual resources to achieve both the good life and the good community”. Finally, he argues that Girard’s theory ‘rescues the spirit’, as the concept of acquisitive mimesis is in effect the spirited part of the soul, and the hunt for metaphysical autonomy is the search for spirit. Putting all of this together, one could interpret this as a full throated defence of acquisitive mimesis: in other words, acquisitive mimesis, or the search for spirit, provides an “inherently social good”. But this seems to cut across the rest of his writing, which paints acquisitive mimesis as painful and deceitful. How does he square this? To put this more directly, does the identification of acquisitive mimesis with the soul transform our understanding of the positive social power of mimesis?
In Johnathan’s manuscript he discusses the limits of reason from a Girardian perspective. He argues that Girard believed that when reason is needed most, the spirit is inflamed and reason is left at the door. This reminds me of Zhuangzi, McGilchrist and Edward Slingerland’s ‘Trying Not to Try’, all of which in different ways reconceptualise rationality as something which is secondary to hot cognition.
Johnathan talks about the ‘deceitful’ nature of metaphysical desire – we think we want something because of its intrinsic qualities, but we actually want it because of our shame and the metaphysical autonomy of the model. Does he see ‘deceitfulness’ as something which carries moral weight, i.e. something which delegitimises metaphysical desire as an objective? Or is he using the term in a descriptive sense? If the former, why do the deceitful foundations of the concept matter?
If metaphysical desire is a yearning ‘to be’, and if metaphysical desire is fuelled by shame, then does this mean that the specific psychological state of the individual dictates how vulnerable such individual is to mimesis? In other words, if one is, by disposition, more confident, more comfortable in their own skin, and less susceptible to shame, does this mean they to a certain extent have a higher resistance to mimetic forces? If so, does this imply that the ‘solution’ to Girard’s theory is to boost confidence and reduce shame? If not, does this mean that the yearning ‘to be’ and the influence of shame somehow operate beyond the level of the specific circumstances of the individual?
Girard focuses on the instances where we imitate the desires of others. This latter type, what Girard termed “acquisitive mimesis” or “mimetic desire,” is central to his work as the generating mechanism of both culture and violence.
Girard’s insight is that behind every state of being we seemingly want to acquire – smart, attractive, successful, etc. – lies a common denominator that we are really after: “metaphysical autonomy.
Metaphysical desire, then, is the faulty logic by which we aim to resolve this shame when we haven’t yet let go of metaphysical autonomy as an end. We search, however unconsciously, for models whom we perceive to have this elusive quality and try to obtain the objects that they desire or possess, with the unconscious assumption that these objects are what make them metaphysically autonomous.
Metaphysical desire proceeds through the form of mimesis and is fueled by the force of shame. Because shame is such a foundational force and its ends are so ambiguous, metaphysical desire is infinitely malleable
Framed in this light, it is not difficult to see why metaphysical desire will be an immanent failure: what it aims at (an object) and what it really wants (being) aren’t even the same type of thing.
My alternative reading is this: the realm of human motivation consists of two fundamental drives that have different aims but nonetheless can, and always do, co-exist alongside each other: metaphysical desire and, in Girard’s own terms, “physical” desire.
With Plato’s picture of the soul in view, I will go on to claim that an influential strand of modern thought systematically ignores the end and means of spirit – reducing humans to, at their best, rational, utility-calculating machines who use the means of reason to satisfy the end of appetite.
What is at stake in overlooking spirit, then, is twofold. First, a social theory grounded on a reduced view of human nature fails to grasp the severity, variety, and frequency which antagonism manifests between subjects. Such a theory which can only conceive of conflict as resulting from appetitive interests does not have the theoretical means to predict, explain, or resolve the most atrocious acts of violence and will, thus, be defenseless against them in reality. It has trouble explaining, for example, the irrational but all-too-common motives of subjects who gain satisfaction from sabotaging others while not advancing their own material interests in any obvious way. If the first point just outlined is that ignoring spirit underestimates the extent of human evil, then the second point is that it is deficient in guiding us towards the human good. Even worse, since what we are deprived of is an inherently social good – none other than a relation with others – we would lack the intellectual resources to achieve both the good life and the good community. The reduced view only permits us to form shallow, instrumental relationships that matter only in so far as they advance our own ends
Theme 2: The Scapegoat Mechanism
Girard argues that a single mimetic rivalry can quickly spread to all members within a group.
As societies spiral towards violence in moments of mimetic contagion, those which survive are those which utilise the scapegoat mechanism. Via this mechanism, the resentments built up over time are blamed on an innocent but peculiar individual or group. The scapegoat is blamed for all the chaos and expelled in an act of collective violence. The totality of the blame is ascribed to the scapegoat. This has a cathartic effect on the society and order is restored.
Scapegoating can be seen as a collective negative phase of mimetic rivalry. The shame felt by society is transferred to an external source, and vengeance is sought on that source.
The catharsis caused by this process is so effective that it can only be explained as a miracle. The scapegoat thus becomes a prestigious god, and a religion formed around them. This is the origins of myth and religion.
Such myths contain two strategies to guard against future escalation: (1) prohibitions, which create genuine difference and thus restrict the possibility of imitation and thus mimetic rivalry, and (2) rituals, which seek to reproduce the original sacrifice in a controlled manner.
Girard argues that modern society is still built around prohibitions and sacrificial rituals. We have found no new collective strategies to resolve violence other than scapegoating. Johnathan nuances this by arguing that the more an institution is aimed at dealing with violence, the more sacrificial it must be.
Peace is derived from the blaming of a relatively innocent victim with absolute certainty. Thus the efficiency of institutions rests on the ability to cover up the fact that they are unjust. The endpoint here is that justice and transparency are incompatible with worldly peace.
The Christian revelation exposed the injustice of scapegoating. It revealed the scapegoat as innocent and the collective as guilty. In doing so, it marked the beginning of the end for the creation of myth out of the scapegoat.
But in doing so, Christianity led to an increase in mimetic rivalries. As society becomes less differentiated, more technologically advanced, more restrictive as to historical models of justice, and less willing to stay humble in the face of capricious gods, we have become more competitive with one another and more able to imitate our neighbour.
Our institutions have become likewise less capable of dealing with violence as the Christian revelation has delegitimised scapegoating, which remains our best way of dealing with violence. Today’s memetic pressure are to protect, not to blame, victims.
We can expect an increase in war fought for prestige and not material resources, in other words for metaphysical desire. Such wars cannot be moderated by politics.
The technological and cultural frictions which prevented annihilation have been worn down by modernity. Nuclear weapons can unleash devastation in an instant.
As we have become more and more alike, we have begun to see more false differences in each other. It is easier to compete with those who are not differentiated. This means that modernity is defined by false rivalries which acquire mimetic power. These tensions grow and grow and, without a scapegoat mechanism to resolve them, lead to violence. Apocalypse is inevitable.
How does scarcity fit into Girard’s account of violence? To what extent does reduction of scarcity offer a form of respite from mimetic rivalry?
What are some examples of modern scapegoating? Some thoughts: big tech companies, Donald Trump, Iraq, fast food, banks.
The scapegoat theory sounds to me like something which should be (relatively) easy to prove or disprove. There is a lot of history, and there has been a lot of violence! A systematic study of civilisations should reveal when violence was bubbling up and when it erupted and dispelled. Where it dispelled, we should be able to identify a scapegoat. Would there be value in conducting such a systematic study? Would it be possible for such study to disprove Girard’s theory?
In Girard’s theory of compounding mimetic rivalries leading to an outbreak of violence, does this compounding effect adopt a force of its own? In other words, is it more than the sum of its parts? Or does the correct unit of analysis remain the individual rivalries, with wider societal implications ‘merely’ being an aggregation effect?
Girard argues that the origin of myth lies in the scapegoat mechanism. One counterargument to this is Joseph Campbell’s argument that mythology provides a cultural framework for a society to educate their young and provide them with a means of coping with their passage through the different stages of life. Is this account of myth compatible with Girard’s theory?
The idea that as we become more equal / alike our capacity for mimetic rivalry becomes stronger, is a provocative one. Can one extrapolate practical implications as to how we should organise our society from this? Should we?
I’d like to kick the tyres on the idea that the more an institution is designed to protect peace, the more sacrificial it must be. Let’s take the EA organisation Givewell as an example. Givewell is set up to try and ensure that charitable decisions are made as rationally as possible. This in a broad sense is an aim which is conducive to ensuring peace. What is the sacrificial element to this?
Girard is quick to point out how even a single mimetic rivalry, far from being a local concern, can quickly spread to all members within a group. Throughout the process of hominization, entire hominoid groups would be caught up in this mimetic contagion, descend into anarchy, and self-destruct. Dominance hierarchies could no longer contain social groups when constituents began imitating each other’s desires.
The only hominoid groups that managed to survive were those who stumbled upon a particular cultural device: what Girard called the victimage mechanism. In moments of mimetic contagion, such groups would, imitating each other, transfer the resentment built up from their personal rivalries upon an innocent but peculiar individual or group. This scapegoat would be blamed for all the chaos within the group and be expelled in an act of collective violence.
This entire victimage mechanism – from innocent bystander to victim and finally to god – Girard argues, is the anthropological origins of myth and religion.
Prohibitions and sacrificial rituals are still the core logic our institutions operate on. We have found no new collective strategies to resolve violence other than scapegoating.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that we find Girard’s claims of the injustice of our institutions so surprising: the very efficacy of institutions rests on their ability to cover up the fact that they are unjust.
For Girard, Christ’s death revealed the scapegoat as innocent and the collective as guilty. The crucifixion exposed the victimage mechanism and the violent, unjust, and untruthful foundations of cultural institutions
Four continued transformations brought about by the Christian revelation are responsible for an increase in internal mediation and, thus, mimetic rivalries. First, equality – the removal of prohibitions, such as gender roles – decreases differentiation. Second, technological developments, such as air travel and the internet, increase exposure. Third, the new Christian standard of justice limits the models we wish to imitate in history, as we now find their practices unjust. This restricts the possibilities for external mediation and pushes individuals into internal mediation with “unproblematic” contemporaries. Lastly, with the fall of myths and deities that kept us humble, humanity has been abusing its newfound license for pride. We more readily and willingly attribute metaphysical autonomy to human peers which only intensifies mimetic rivalries.
Technological frictions – distance, terrain, communication, etc. – are all the spatio-temporal barriers preventing the use of maximum force in a single instance. Cultural frictions – the prohibitions within war such as an honor code, political consequences, burial rites, etc. – are all the social-cultural barriers preventing the use of maximum force in a single instance. In situations where there are abundant technological and cultural frictions – I take weeks to maneuver my troops as you do yours, I provide a burial truce for you as you do me, etc. – war could deescalate to mere armed observation. Metaphysical passions cool down
But Girard sees in Napoleon’s ability to conscript universally and arrange every aspect of society in service of the military apparatus evidence that technological and cultural frictions were beginning to disappear. Today, nuclear weapons have conquered all technological frictions, enabling us to unleash everything in one instance, and nothing but a fragile International Law of War restricts our actions culturally.
Third, without sacrificial scapegoating to end war, violence is constant. Whatever peace there may be is simply a suspended state of potential violence. That is to say, without placing ultimate blame on a small group of individuals, the losing side will never accept the state of peace
At a time when people have never been more radically alike and equal, people see the most radical and diametrically-opposed differences in each other. Modernity, undifferentiated and exposed, becomes infested with internal mediation. Rivals see nothing in the other but the false differences they erect.
Theme 3: The Buddhist Solution
Girard shows that evil is the constitutive condition of human organization, and will only be more powerful as history progresses.
The Christian revolution has accelerated the bad (violence) and the good (love), and innovation has armed them both with powerful instruments. The solution to this would require us to renounce violence, cultivate love and accelerate innovation on a societal scale.
Girard does not believe this is possible. He therefore argues that the path of individual salvation lies in imitating Christ via withdrawal. We must not imitate. To achieve this, we must withdraw from society.
In his manuscript, Johnathan proposes that a salve to the apocalyptic predictions of Girard can be found in Buddhism.
In doing so, Johnathan acknowledges that he is proposing a solution at the level of the individual- how can an individual renounce violence, accelerate love and accelerate innovation?
The essence of Johnathan’s argument is that the Girardian problem of violence can be fully reduced to the Buddhist problem of suffering. Therefore the Buddhist solution – the path of liberation – offers normative guidance. Johnathan relies on the interpretation of the modern Buddhist scholar David Loy in drawing these parallels.
The Buddhist world is marked by (1) ‘impermanence’, being the fact that all phenomena change and are subject to cessation, and (2) ‘interdependence’ , meaning that all phenomena are dependent on external causes. In other words, all phenomena do not have an eternal indivisible and autonomous existence. Misknowledge is the idea that we do not appreciate these two elements of the world. We think of phenomena (including ourselves) as lasting and autonomous. In other worlds, we believe in a ‘self’ and refuse to accept that our conception of the self isn’t as solid as we think it is. Despite this, deep down we suspect that the self isn’t what we want it to be. This results in a sense of ‘lack’ – a distance between the self we experience (impermanent, interdependent), and the self we idealise (the opposite). To try and solve this lack we try and establish the self through objects. If I own then I am.
Parallels can be drawn between this and Girardian pursuit of metaphysical desire. We can therefore turn to Buddhist solutions. The Buddhist solution is to realise that the self cannot be established, and to learn to see it as impermanent and interdependent. It does this via the path of liberation, which deconstructs the ego by “actualising the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion”.
Johnathan’s solution to Girard starts at the level of the individual. Yet he says that Girardian theory always has as its unit of analysis the collective or at least the pair. By focusing on the individual he appears to be suggesting that we each have the requisite agency to escape Girard, or at least to try to. This feels quite un-Girardian! Does he think that by conceiving of a Buddhist solution he is refuting one of the premises of Girardian theory? Or does he see himself as accepting Girard’s premises and using these to formulate a solution?
What are the practical implications of the Buddhist solution? How does he apply the Buddhist solution in your life?
To what extent does one need a theoretical understanding of Buddhism to apply the Buddhist solution?
Can Johnathan talk a bit more about the role of the ego in Girardian and Buddhist theory?
I wonder if a solution to Girard can be found in Taosim. If one is in wu-wei are they less susceptible to mimetic pressures? Does being in harmony with the universe preclude mimetic pressures? Or are mimetic pressures ‘of’ the universe?
Chapters 7 – 9 of Johnathan’s manuscript.
The path of individual salvation lies in an imitation of Christ, which encourages the renouncing of violence and development of love in five ways.
Specifically, imitating Christs renounces violence because it renounces any worldly imitation: one does not imitate and one is not imitated by any other human whatsoever.
Thus, the only way to both cultivate love and renounce violence is to be unexposed – distant and withdrawn from society.
The resources I hope to develop are individualistic in nature – they are prescribed for a singular individual, on how he himself may renounce violence, cultivate love, and accelerate innovation in the existing social world.
Girard reconciles us, in a very limited sense, by showing that evil is the constitutive condition of human organization and will only be more powerful as history progresses – there is very little that we can do.
My solution centers on the insight that the Girardian problem of violence can be fully reduced to the Buddhist problem of suffering. Consequently, the Buddhist solution — the Path of Liberation — offers the Girardian valuable normative guidance.
The Buddhist world is marked by impermanence and interdependence. Impermanence is the fact that all phenomena change and are subject to cessation. Interdependence is the observation that all phenomena are dependent upon causes to come into existence, are dependent upon parts to make up a whole, and are dependent upon the mind to create an intelligible identity. They are dependent and constructed by us in some way. Together, impermanence and interdependence implies that all phenomena are empty of an eternal, mind-independent, indivisible, and autonomous existence.
But deep down we know, or at least have suspicions, that the lasting and autonomous view of the self isn’t right. Whether its through the imminent specter of death that challenges our immortality, or the rapidity of which we adopt and renounce identities in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, David Loy argues that we are constantly showered with reasons to suspect that the “self” we think to be so solid and real isn’t so. The unreality of the self must be repressed for it threatens us with an immediate and immobilizing groundlessness.
This is the fundamental repression, Loy argues, and through it we develop an all-pervasive sense of lack from the distance between the impermanent, interdependent self we experience and the lasting, autonomous self we idealize. This lack commands us to realize this ideal even more by establishing the self through identifying with (craving) and identifying against (aversion) objects in the broadest sense of the word: possessions, titles, people, etc.
The logic of this lack is objectification: to establish the self through objects. Loy explains its reasoning: “If I own things (ideas, theories, identities, material objects), then “I am.” If there are eternal objects that I can possess, then I too must be eternal.” Loy argues that this pursuit, much like the pursuit of metaphysical desire and false differences, must end in disappointment:
The Buddhist solution to this problem of ego is as radical as it is simple: realize that the self can not be established, learn to see the self as impermanent and interdependent, embrace the groundlessness.
The Buddhist path of liberation can be seen as a systematic, reproducible, and controlled way of producing the Girardian “fall”. The path deconstructs the ego by actualizing the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion.
Theme 4: Echo Chambers, Ideological Conformity and Stagnation
American political discourse has taken an illiberal turn, with competing echo chambers defined by an intolerance for dissent.
Perhaps surprisingly, this illiberal turn appears to be bottom-up rather than top-down. There is no single power handing out punishments and rewards.
This can be attributed to the pressures of the democratic process. Political leadership is directed by the opinions of the masses. A requirement of a democratic citizen is therefore to have an opinion on a wide-variety of topics.
Democracy also means that everyday discourse becomes political. This means that people make decisions based on political affiliations rather than through reason.
Carl Schmitt argued that the political sphere draws a distinction between friend and foe. This is the ultimate distinction as it carries the most important consequences: the threat of violence.
Thus the politicisation of society means that the consequences of dissent (literal or figurative violence) outweigh the desire for free expression.
Alexis de Tocqueville argued that, in systems where ideas flow bottom-up and the opinions of the majority determine the direction of leaders, there is little room for dissident thought as the people naturally police each other.
A society is only as intellectually free as the costs are for its citizens to dissent from majority. The US currently is seeing increasing social costs for dissenting from certain opinions.
This is actually a symptom of a deeper issue – stagnation. The American spirit is restless. This is conducive to progress where there is space for positive-sum competition. However, where competition is zero-sum (i.e. in a stagnating society), the distinction between friend and foe becomes more acute, and thus political discourse becomes more zero-sum (see Peter Thiel’s belief in economic growth as being essential to US democracy).
The solution thus lies in innovation – the discovery of new frontiers which can drive us out of stagnation.
I’m really interested by the idea that there is a connection between economic stagnation and the deterioration of American political discourse. Does this imply that ultimately everything is downstream of economics? I’m particularly curious that Johnathan leans towards economics as the answer rather than mimesis. Why was this? Where does mimesis fit into this framework?
Johnathan’s account of stagnation is primarily an economic one – our share of the pie is under threat as the pie isn’t growing. But if we expand outside the realms of economics, many people would make the case that what we’ve seen over last 10 years has been an exit from long period of moral stagnation. In other words, ‘wokeness’, ‘social justice’ or whatever you want to call it is actually an example of profound moral innovation. To use the language in his piece, we are finding ‘new frontiers’ of justice and morality. How does this framing interact with his argument that it is stagnation that is causing polarisation?
I love Johnathan’s definition of an intellectually free society: “a society is only as intellectually free as the costs are for its citizens to dissent from majority.” Where these costs are social costs (ostracization etc), is there a way that policymakers can incentivise those imposing the costs to refrain from doing so? Or is this like bringing a knife to a gunfight?
American political discourse is deteriorating into two opposing echo chambers. They both betray a conformity in opinion and intolerance towards dissension that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be identified as "liberal".
We expect this degree of ideological conformity to be the product of a centralized power handing out punishments and rewards. But, as far as I know, there is no single authority dictating our thoughts and punishing our dissension.
The political leadership is elected and, to a large extent, directed by the opinions of the masses. Therefore, a requirement of democratic citizenship is to have an opinion on a wide-variety of topics.
The democratic process is a natural, but certainly not necessary, channel through which tribalism and the friend-foe distinction are injected into society and intellectual freedoms are limited.
To the true, capital-L Liberal — he who treasures freedom above all — the politicization of society should be his greatest fear. For as soon as an issue becomes politicized, the consequences of political ostracization often trump the will towards free expression.
Constitutive to being a political actor is the enforcement of the party line in action as well as in thought, to aid one's allies and harm one's foes. Bottom-up thought control mobilizes everyone to police each other's thinking in a way that, at least according to Tocqueville, a singular monarch never could.
A society is only as intellectually free as limited the costs are, both socially and physically, for its citizens to contradict the majority opinion.
It may surprise the reader, given how much ink I've spilt on the political so far, that I take it to be but a mere symptom of a deeper malaise: stagnation. In other words, the problem of the political cannot be resolved on the political level alone. We will never rid ourselves of the expanding reach of the political unless we address the underlying problem of stagnation.
Stagnation is at odds with the American spirit, a spirit characterized by its restlessness.
The more an activity is positive-sum, the more you can satisfy your desire for more without taking from another, the more you are freed from making the political distinction between friends and foes. Put another way, politics distinguishes between friends whose interests are aligned with yours and foes whose gains must come at your expense.
But, in a restless nation with a stagnant pie, expectation turns into frustration and dreams into discontentment. If people can't satisfy their desire for more by creating value in a growing pie they can only take value and vent frustration through politics.
The zero-sum nature of our political discourse reflects the increasingly zero-sum nature of value creation — the lack of innovation and progress.
It becomes much simpler because we have a rough silhouette of what is required of us: to create positive-sum frontiers where people can create value for themselves and society at large.
Yet, what needs to be done to rectify our political situation also becomes much more difficult because the solution goes well beyond political reform or pretty ideas. What is required is for daring pioneers, paddling against the currents of indifference and stagnation, to uncover new frontiers that amaze and inspire.
Theme 5: Free Will
In the West, freedom is the primary source of political legitimacy. In other words, political relationships are legitimised on the basis of consent (did people freely sign up to this) rather than substance (is this working). The primacy of freedom is built into our conception of society – e.g. the American Declaration of Independence.
This conception of freedom is not historically universal. For Confucius, what legitimised the state was the virtuosity of the ruler. For Plato and Aristotle, states were not ‘legitimate’ or otherwise. What mattered was whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
So where did the Western conception of freedom as the absolute foundation of legitimacy come from? Johnathan argues it stems from Christianity, and in particular the problem of evil: if God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent then why is there still evil?
The concept of freedom (or free will) allows us to answer the problem of evil. This is exemplified in Milton’s Paradise Lost. To justify why God is not responsible for humanity’s fall in Eden, Milton creates for us a will that (A) immensely powerful, thus relieving God of any responsibility for our fall, and (B) immensely good (i.e. the benefits of free will outweigh all the evils that stem from free will), thus justifying God’s decision to endow it with us in the first place.
This cultural conception of freedom – as something which is God-given, immensely powerful and immensely good – explains why it is so central to Western society.
By placing freedom in this cultural context we can understand why other civilisations have different standards of freedom. We can also understand the extent to which freedom is embedded in the Western psych.
Any attempts to reform or restrict freedom must be done from this context. Reforms should operate within the framework of freedom itself.
What can Girard tell us about free will? If we are driven by mimetic desires can we be said to have free will? Does the concept of mimesis mean that our relationships are somehow illegitimate?
What was Girard’s answer to the problem of evil?
How does Johnathan’s model of the Western conception of ‘freedom’ being a response to the Problem of Evil account for the experiments of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. However imperfectly, did these not purport to derive legitimacy from the consent of the citizenry?
Is it possible to conceive of a democracy which does not derive its political legitimacy from the conception of freedom? Could one have a democratic system which derives its legitimacy from elsewhere?
Our relationship with freedom is odd, first and foremost, because we consider it to be the main, if not the only, source of political legitimacy.
For Plato and Aristotle, political legitimacy wasn’t even the leading concern. States were not so much “legitimate” or “illegitimate” as they were “good” or “bad,” largely depending on the types of characters that they produce. As was the case with the Chinese, it was substantive ideals that were important for the Greeks in matters of statecraft.
What is peculiar about this liberal intuition, when contrasted against the larger backdrop of history, is that it is the form – the fact that you chose – rather than the substance – what you chose – that matters for political legitimacy. A Confucian would consider an elected buffoon just as illegitimate as an American would consider an enlightened monarch.
Our relationship with freedom is also odd because, third, it is our most important substantive value. It is odd to have freedom as a substantive value at all, let alone as the highest, because of how substance-less it is.
The primacy of freedom can largely be attributed to a specific line of argumentation pursued within Christian theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to resolve the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, why is there still evil in the world?
To lessen God’s burden of responsibility, Milton gives us a will that is free to choose.
Of course, smuggled into this freedom is responsibility that draws part of the blame away from God.
To defend God as completely blame free, Milton has to point to more than just a freely choosing will. He has to posit a will that, no matter how coercive the circumstance, retains an absolute power to direct itself. By absolute I mean a complete sovereignty from external conditions.
The grand calculus between these two worlds is this: God’s decision to give us freedom is only justified if it is so good and valuable that its inclusion far outweighs all the evils that result from it. In other words, all the warfare, famine, and, disease in the world could have been avoided. The fact that they weren’t can only be justified by a gift of freedom that is at least as valuable as all these evils are bad. That is how good Milton must make freedom out to be.
With this specific origin of the will in mind, our current relationship with freedom becomes self-explanatory. Of course choice is the sole source of legitimacy and authenticity, God said as much. Of course the will is separate from the intellect. It is a sovereign faculty so powerful that even God seems somewhat powerless against it. Of course we treasure it as the highest good. Freedom must be at least as good as all the world’s evils are bad for God to have endowed us with it. And, of course, how could something so good and powerful not gain immense cultural prestige and become a “hurrah” term? Milton’s theodicy alongside many others that justified evil on a similar basis of freedom have been embedding liberal intuitions into Christian societies for two millennia. The love for freedom that seems puzzling even to many westerners, becomes readily understandable when you see it as a devotion to and protection of a literally sacred faculty.
It does mean we should be cautious of judging other, non-Christian civilizations by our exact standards of freedom. This genealogy, especially to the non-Christian liberal, may seem like an attack on freedom, but it is not. It is only meant to be an invitation to peel back the sacred veil around freedom to examine all its strengths and weaknesses with a sober eye.
Reformers should reject any delusions that the west will, anytime soon, dispense with freedom altogether. Freedom is so embedded into our psyche, for such a long time, that those who wish to improve it and even those who wish to restrict it will only be able to do so in the framework of freedom itself.