Neal Donner is an independent scholar and private teacher living in Los Angeles California. His doctoral dissertation, The Great Calming and Contemplation of Chih-I, Chapter I: The Synopsis (translated, annotated, and with an introduction) [University of British Columbia, 1976, UMI #7809458], dealt with one of the fundamental texts of Chinese T'ien T'ai Buddhism. This study is now available, with both additions and subtractions, as The Great Calming and Contemplation, A Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of Chih-i's Mo-ho-chih-kuan [Neal Donner and Daniel B. Stevenson, Kuroda Institute Book, University of Hawaii Press, 1993].
Mysticism has a bad name in libertarian circles, partly because of Ayn Rand's denunciations of mystics as antirational, coercive totalitarians. Yet a closer look at the behaviors and ideas associated with certain important forms of mysticism in history reveals that mystics have often been found in dedicated opposition to the State, indeed to all forms of "tyranny over the mind of man," in Jefferson's phrase. Non-theistic mysticism moreover proposes a respectful critique of reason that bears an uncanny resemblance to some of the main principles of Friedrich Hayek's thought.
Ayn Rand's views on mystics may be presented in her own words (from the remarkable and lengthy John Ga1t speech in Atlas Shrugged):
Make no mistake about the character of mystics. To undercut your consciousness has always been their only purpose throughout the ages -- and power, the power to rule you by force, has always been their only lust....The supernatural power that a mystic dreads, the unknowable spirit he worships, the consciousness he considers omnipotent is-- yours.
A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others....He chose to submit rather than to understand, to believe rather than to think....When a mystic declares that he feels the existence of a power superior to reason, he feels it all right, but that power is not an omniscient super-spirit of the universe, it is the consciousness of any passer-by to whom he has surrendered his own...
Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement. He wants them to surrender their consciousness to his assertions, his edicts, his wishes, his whims, as his consciousness is surrendered to theirs....
There is only one state that fulfills the mystic's longing for infinity, non-causality, non-identity: death. (pp.969-970)
On the other hand, the also brilliant and influential Murray Rothbard had this to say about the author of one of the great mystical classics of all time, the 3rd century B.C. Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Tao):
One of the first libertarian philosophers, Lao-tzu, living in the midst of ancient Chinese despotism, saw no hope for achieving liberty in that totalitarian society except by counseling quietism, to the point of the individual's dropping out of social life altogether. (pp. 62-63)
What is going on here? Do mystics really hate freedom as much as Rand insists they do? Or can they love freedom as much as Rothbard suggests? It becomes apparent that we cannot learn from either Rand or Rothbard what a mystic really is. Rand's sense of the word is completely idiosyncratic, a technical term in her own philosophy, only vaguely reminiscent of the conventional sense. On the other hand, Rothbard studiously avoids the use of the word (it is, after all, a red flag to any Objectivist) in praising Lao-tzu's devotion to liberty -- but anyone who has taken even a one-semester college course in Chinese philosophy or religion knows very well that Taoism, the tradition of which Lao-tzu is conventionally regarded as the founder, is by far the most mystical of all the various trends of ancient Chinese philosophy.
So what is a mystic, anyway?
To begin where such discussion often begins, let us glance at a dictionary definition:
Mysticism. 1. The doctrine or belief that direct knowledge of God, of spiritual truth, etc., is attainable through immediate intuition or insight and in a way differing from ordinary sense perception or the use of logical reason; as, nature mysticism. 2. Any type of theory asserting the possibility of attaining knowledge or power through faith or spiritual insight. 3. Hence, vague speculation.
The third definition is what the average person thinks of when hearing the word (if he knows it at all). However no student or practitioner of mysticism uses the term in this sense, so it need detain us no further. Both the first and second definitions are helpful and precise in suggesting that mysticism involves an affirmation of the possibility of knowledge (in a way different from the use of reason). Notice that, contra Rand, there is here no suggestion of any outright hostility to reason.
What is this intuition or insight? It has often been called mystical insight, and it is more or less equivalent to the cognitive aspect of mystical experience. As for mystical experience (a form of religious experience), the American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote the following oft-cited passage in his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Our normal waking consciousness...is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are all there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question -- for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. (pp. 378-379)
James quotes the following personal account:
For nearly an hour I walked along the road...and then returned. On the way back, suddenly, without warning, I felt that I was in heaven -- an inward state of peace and joy and assurance indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light, as though the external condition had brought about the internal effect -- a feeling of having passed beyond the body, though the scene around me stood out more clearly and as if nearer to me than before, by reason of the illumination in the midst of which I seemed to be placed. This deep emotion lasted, though with decreasing strength, until I reached home, and for some time after, only gradually passing away. (p. 388)
For a similar view by another authority:
Then the spirit is transported high above all the faculties into a void of immense solitude whereof no mortal can adequately speak. It is the mysterious darkness wherein is concealed the limitless Good. To such an extent are we admitted and absorbed into something that is one, simple, divine, and illimitable, that we seem no longer distinguishable from it....In this unity, the feeling of multiplicity disappears. When, afterwards, these persons come to themselves again, they find themselves possessed of a distinct knowledge of things, more luminous and more perfect than that of others....This obscurity is a light to which no created intelligence can arrive by its own nature." (Poulain, p. 272. Quoted by Tart, pp. 26-27)
We refer also to an epoch-making and controversial paper by Walter Pahnke, in which he reported on the results of his successful double-blind experiment in chemically facilitating mystical experience in a group of Protestant seminary students (ten subjects and ten controls):
Mystical consciousness can best be described as a dimension of experience that, when expressed on paper by an experimental subject and subsequently content-analyzed, corresponds to nine interrelated categories....These were derived [by the author from a historical survey of the literature of spontaneous mysticism, including the commentaries of scholars such as William James and W.T. Stace. As Stace has emphasized, such categories attempt to describe the core of a universal psychological experience, free from culturally determined philosophical or theological interpretations....The ontological status of such descriptions may, of course, be debated....
Tart, pp. 399-407)
- Experience of an undifferentiated unity... either internal or external....The subject-object dichotomy (is) transcended.
- Objectivity and Reality: knowledge or illumination about being or existence in general, and...(the conviction) that such knowledge is truly or ultimately real.
- Transcendence of space and time: a radical change in perspective where (the person) suddenly feels as though he is outside of time, in eternity or infinity.
- Sense of sacredness: a nonrational, intuitive, hushed, palpitant response in the presence of inspiring realities.
- Deeply-felt positive mood: joy, love, blessedness, and peace.
- Paradoxicality: significant aspects...are felt to be true in spite of the fact that they violate the laws of Aristotelian logic.
- Alleged Ineffability: language...is inadequate to contain or even accurately reflect such experience.
- Transiency: (The experience) remains for anywhere from a matter of seconds to a few hours and then disappear(s), returning the experiencer to his usual state of everyday consciousness.
- Positive changes in attitude and/or behavior: Increased personality integration is reported, including a renewed sense of personal worth coupled with a relaxation of habitual mechanisms of ego defense.
Let us note in passing the phrase "renewed sense of personal worth" in item 9 above. We shall return to this point later.
For our last authority we take Agehananda Bharati, a former Hindu ascetic (though of European birth) who went on to gain a Ph.D. and join the department of anthropology at the University of Syracuse (New York):
A mystic is a person who says "I am a mystic," or words to that effect, consistently, when questioned about his most important pursuit. Further, his statement...has to have a general widely applicable meaning, and must not be a term used only by a group of people in a manner peculiar to them....(Such a person seeks) intuition of numerical oneness with the cosmic absolute, with the universal matrix, or with any essence stipulated by the various theological and speculative systems of the world. This alone is the mystical effort; a person who pursues it, and pursues it as his overwhelmingly central avocation -- doing everything else marginally, so to speak -- and who at the same time states that he has embarked on this quest, is a mystic....(There) is an additional objective criterion: (a mystic is) a seeker of intuitive union with the cosmic ground, who chooses experiments which would lead to such intuition. (Bharati, pp. 25-28)
It must be emphasized that there can be no doubt about whether mystical experience exists. Admittedly, the evidence is virtually all anecdotal (with the interesting exception of Mr. Pahnke's "experimental mysticism"). But there is so much of it that though a skeptic has plenty of room to doubt anyone's interpretation of such an experience, he has no more rational justification to doubt the existence of this psychological phenomenon than to doubt a crying child's earache. Where another's subjective experience is concerned, the jeer that "it's all in your head" amounts to little more than disapproval, mixed sometimes with envy. Mystical experience does exist. It has to do with a shift in the state of consciousness, evidently not just in the emotional but also in the cognitive dimension, like the shift from sleep to wakefulness (which is in fact a frequent metaphor in the literature).
With the testimony of James, Poulain, Tart and Bharati in mind, we are now in a position to construct a simple working definition:
Mysticism is a mode of life and thought of a person who:
- is having, or
- strives for, or
- lives out of the memory of, mystical experience.
Most observers seem to agree that the full-blown mystical experience does not admit of varieties (despite the title of William James' seminal work) -- it may be incomplete, but no feature in it will contradict the elements of, for example, the Stace-Pahnke description cited above. It is the same across the world, throughout history, in all cultures and all religions. Evidently it is something which humans are capable of simply by virtue of being human. Mystics in different places, times or traditions have, however, broadly divided into two groups according to how they have interpreted their own mystical experiences. They have attributed the source of their mystical experience to either (1) God, or (2) the self, and similarly, claim to have achieved knowledge of either (1) God, or (2) the self.
The average person who knows the word "mysticism" understands it in terms of the third dictionary definition: "vague speculation." But a bit of education teaches most people in cultures where monotheistic religion is the norm that it has something to do with knowledge of God. Nearly all practicing Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and Jews, and even skeptical atheists (like Rand) understand it in this way, whether they approve of it or not.
Too few people in the Occident are aware, however, of the other cognitive claim mystics have made: that it is the self which is the object of knowledge as well as the source of the experience. Yet for mystics themselves, this interpretation seems to be if anything dominant (for though they often talk in terms of "God," it turns out that this is a God not separate from the self).
In this way two spiritual orientations derive from the mystical experience: the theistic and the nontheistic. The theist posits an external entity (God) as source (and holds that the self is separate from it). On the other hand the nontheist (who is different from the atheist!) posits the self as source (and if he uses the word "God" at all, speaks of the latter as identical with the self).
The divergent interpretations of mystical experience become divergent theologies. Theism often involves a conception of God as king, as an authoritarian judge capable of both kindness and rage, whom we obey, worship, and attempt to propitiate. As a person, God's gender is determinate, and "He" is supposed to be infinitely greater than, and completely distinct from, us and the entire natural world. Rand inveighed against precisely this kind of spirituality.
A nontheistic theology or metaphysics on the other hand involves a conception of some kind of self as ruler, as source and as object of devotion. Rand apparently knew nothing of the nontheistic mystical traditions, which is why we will spend some pages below exploring various of their aspects, particularly what they have to say about freedom.
There are numerous paths to the mystical experience. The following are all mentioned in various religious texts:
It comes, but not always, to those who have spent a lifetime pursuing it, and it comes, often enough, unannounced to those who do not work for it. It comes sometimes in the first few attempts at meditation, and sometimes in the last moment of life. Elusive and swathed in mystery (a word with which it is sometimes confused), no single method can be guaranteed to attain it. Some methods are more reliable than others, however: the right drugs in the right context and with the right preparation can bring the probability close to certainty. as Mr. Pahnke's famous experiment seems to have demonstrated. The peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church are perhaps the best example in this country of a successful (and mirabile dictu, legally tolerated by force of court decisions) orchestration of several of these tried and tested methods to attain mystical experience.
The principle mystical tradition I will examine is Chinese Taoism, though Buddhism, Hinduism, and certain occidental mystical traditions as well have some important things to say about freedom.
Murray Rothbard implicitly suggests this to be our point of departure, since as we noted above, he refers to Lao-tzu, the Chinese sage whom tradition views as the fount of the Taoist tradition, as "one of the first libertarian philosophers."
Nothing is known for sure about his life, but Lao-tzu is supposed to have lived in the 5th century B.C. He seems to be a mostly mythical figure (much more shadowy than Confucius, Gautama Buddha or Jesus). Hence the phrase "Lao-tzu said" is just another way of referring to the text of the famous Tao-te-ching, a book which is known in English variously as the Book of the Tao, the Way and its Power, the Classic of the Way, and so on. Its 81 "chapters" (averaging less than a page each) make up one of the great classics of world literature. No Chinese book has been translated more often into English.
One of the fascinating aspects of this text is its blending of politics and mysticism -- a combination that many modern readers have found paradoxical. Certain of its translators and interpreters have tried to force its meaning into one or the other of these two western categories. There does at first glance seem to be something schizophrenic about this text, and many of the passages seem to fall neatly into one or the other bag: mystical or political. I will however argue that there is no contradiction at all, that in fact "Lao-tzu" had his finger on a deeper truth than many of his interpreters seem to have been aware.
Let us look at some of the "political" pronouncements of the Tao-te-ching (see De Bary):
He who by Tao purposes to help a ruler of men will oppose all conquest by force of arms. (30)
(Tao) clothes and feeds all, but does not pose as their master....Because it would never claim greatness, therefore its greatness is fully realized. (34)
The adherence of the populace can only be won by letting-alone. (57)
Ruling a large kingdom is indeed like cooking small fish. (i.e. the less one handles them the better) (60)
The people are not frightened of death. What then is the use of trying to intimidate them with the death-penalty? (74)
The people are difficult to keep in order because those above them interfere. That is the only reason why they are so difficult to keep in order. (75)
As can be seen, the general idea is that a state is best governed when governed least. Incidentally, the phrase from chapter 60 is one which ex-Senator Hayakawa (R-California) enjoyed quoting from time to time in various political contexts. These are no doubt the sorts of statements which inspired Rothbard to identify Lao-tzu as an early libertarian philosopher.
This text initiated a tradition in China of questioning authority and became part of the inspiration for Taoist political rebellions for many centuries thereafter. In fact, virtually whenever an important popular movement resisted central state power (itself legitimized by the Confucian rather than the Taoist tradition), that movement would explicitly appeal to this text, and often to Lao-tzu himself as a kind of patron saint.
Then there is the "mystical" aspect of the Tao-te-ching:
The Way is like an empty vessel that yet may be drawn from without ever needing to be filled. It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world. (4)
The expression of Vast Virtue is derived from the Tao alone. As to the Tao itself, it is elusive and evasive. Evasive, elusive, yet within it there are things. Shadowy and dim, yet within it there is a vital force. The vital force is very real, and therein tells truth. (21)
Tao never does, yet through it all things are done. (37)
What is of all things most yielding can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard. Being substanceless, it can enter even where there is no space; that is how I know the value of action that is actionless. (43)
The Sage arrives without going, sees all without looking, does nothing, yet achieves everything. (47)
Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know. (56)
The above passages are typical, not exceptional. Many more of each type could be cited. The poetic ambiguity of the original classical Chinese often allows the same string of characters to be subjected to diverse interpretations, a situation which has severely frustrated many students of the text. Much of the ambiguity clears away though when one realizes that the subject being discussed is not either politics or mysticism, but both at the same time.
The text asserts that precisely the same principles operate in both the world of affairs (where one interacts with other human beings) and in the internal search for mystical realization. The king who refrains from interfering in his subjects' conduct of their lives is at the same time the sage who melts into nature. His highest goal is reached, in a paradoxical way: by his very act of renouncing coercion as a legitimate style of interaction with the environment (human and natural), the sage-king (so different from Plato's philosopher king!) attains the power to do all things. In renouncing knowledge he becomes in some sense omniscient. It is ultimately from the impersonal Way (Tao) that this wisdom and power (te) derive, as this classic text (ching) explains to us: Tao-te-ching.
Contra Rand, there is in this quintessentially mystical text no talk of death. Instead Lao-tzu powerfully asserts the existence of a life-force (see his Ch. 21 above) which lies at the source of all living entities, and which is available to the experiencing self of at least the sage. Nature is understood as mated with man in indissoluble unity -- it "happens" without having to be pushed. Citizens of a state, too, can "happen" without being pushed. The elements of nature (even if apparently inert) and the elements of society (human individuals) are spontaneously alive and active, without exception legitimate and unique expressions of the Source (Tao). This being the case, we can safely let them act on their own (laissez-faire), trusting them as we would trust the Tao itself. There is here no suggestion of original sin. On the contrary, one cannot help thinking that Lao-tzu would have applauded Eve and Adam for following their inner light.
The concept of wu-wei or "actionless action" lies close to the core of this philosophy. While oriental scholars have often puzzled over its exact sense, in the context of our discussion there can be no mistake. Nature and the realized sage "act without acting" because they remain joined to the source of all life and existence. Certainly there are distinct events in nature and in the life of the sage, but they are all part of the "main event," the organic whole in which they participate.
It might at first seem that the sage would lose all personality, all distinguishing features, completely ceasing to be an individual. This would be to miss a deeper point implied by Lao-tzu and explicitly stressed by countless later Taoists: this sense of being joined to the source of existence is precisely what enables the sage fearlessly to act out his own uniqueness. With security comes individuation. During the decline and fall of the great Han dynasty around the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, certain well-educated young Taoists were famous for their unconventional behavior, somewhat like American hippies of the 60's (with wine taking the place of marijuana).
They often appealed to Lao-tzu (and Chuang-tzu see below) for justification of the view that individuals should not have to conform to social norms, but should be free to act in any way they see fit, as long as they have a sense of their unity with the Tao.
This Tao must not be mistaken for a personal god of the Christian or Moslem type. It does not will, it cannot be prayed to, it does not intervene in the course of nature. It has in fact no characteristics at all that can be named. Even to say that it exists is to say too much ("those who speak do not know"). But it can be experienced at the root of one's own being, completely without external assistance.
Chuang-tzu, the second great Taoist philosopher, is not nearly so known in the West as Lao-tzu. Though the book that bears his name has easily been as influential throughout Chinese history as the Tao-te-ching, it has only been translated a few times into English, and adequately only within the last few decades. Without dwelling on the reasons for this, we may nevertheless accept the judgement of oriental scholars as to the gigantic influence that his book has exerted on Chinese culture. To take just two of many examples, Chinese landscape painting and Zen Buddhism are both permeated with his way of looking at things.
Burton Watson, the China scholar at Columbia University who published a close-to definitive translation of the whole Chuang-Tzu in 1968, has this to say about the text:
The central theme of the Chuang-tzu may be summed up in a single word: freedom. Essentially, all the philosophers of ancient China addressed themselves to the same problem: how is man to live in a world dominated by chaos, suffering, and absurdity? Nearly all of them answered with some concrete plan of action designed to reform the individual, to reform society, and eventually to free the world from its ills.... Chuang Tzu's answer, however,...is radically different....It is the answer of a mystic....(His) answer to the question is: free yourself from the world...(i.e.) conventional values....He employs every resource of rhetoric in his efforts to awaken the reader to the essential meaninglessness of conventional values and to free him from their bondage. (pp. 3-5)
It hardly needs mentioning that "conventional values" amount to demands made upon one by other people in the society. To be free of conventional values means for Chuang-tzu to be free of anyone else's will, to follow his fancy where it would wander, to define his own universe for himself.
The Chuang-tzu is a passionate and highly individual book. While the Tao-te-ching speaks in parables and epigrams, the Chuang-tzu soars on flights of imagination and tells homely, often absurdly funny stories. Here is the sage in conversation with a supporter of the State:
(statist:) You say there must be no government. But if there is no government, how are men's hearts to be improved?
(Chuang-tzu:) The last thing you should do is to tamper with men's hearts. The heart of man is like a spring; if you press it down, it only springs up the higher.... A wild steed that cannot be tethered -- such is the heart of man. (Waley, p. 70)
Arthur Waley, probably the greatest of twentieth century translators of East Asian classics, commented on this passage (in 1939):
The "no-government" doctrine of...this and similar passages in other Taoist books has often compared with the modern anarchism of writers like Kropotkin. But there are important differences. The modern anarchists regard government and religious morality as devices invented by a privileged class in order to maintain its privileges; whereas Taoism looks upon the [Confucian] Sages [who are in control of the government] as misguided altruists. Moreover, one of the main tenets of modern anarchism is that no appeal must be made to the authority of "metaphyslcal entities"; and it can hardly be denied that, whatever else it may be or may not be, Tao is undoubtedly a "metaphysical entity." But anarchists and Taoists are in agreement upon one fundamental point: laws produce criminals. Eliminate the (Confucian) Sages who produce laws, and "there will be peace and order everywhere under Heaven ." (pp. 73-74)
Notice that the modern libertarian view of politicians is probably closer to the Taoist perspective than to Kropotkin: in a democracy at least, they tend more to be misguided altruists than a privileged class trying to preserve its privilege. In fact, ancient China was blessed with what was by world standards a comparatively benign government, just as the democracies are today. On the other hand, there are and were plenty of third-world nations where Kropotkin's view seems closer to the mark, and even our democracies are manipulated by factions and interest groups (rather than by a ruling class in the traditional sense) trying to protect their various privileges at the expense of the society as a whole.
The "metaphysical entity" to which Waley refers must be taken with a grain of salt. The word "entity" is misleading insofar as it can be understood to refer to an existing "thing," divine or otherwise. Like Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu states repeatedly and with unmistakable clarity that the Tao cannot be named or defined in any way.
The following passage gives a vivid idea of Chuang-tzu's lack of dogmatism and sense of humor. Observe too how he refuses to accord anyone the right to decide for someone else:
Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I have beaten you instead of your beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong? If you and I don't know the answer, then other people are bound to be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to decide what is right? Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly? Shall we get someone who agrees with me? But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us? But if he already disagrees with both of us, how can he decide? Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can decide for each other. Shall we wait for still another person? (p.48)
Now in a more purely mystical vein, Chuang-tzu tells us, with a touch of outrageous humor, just where the Ultimate Reality can be found:
Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu:
"This thing called the Way -- where does it exist?"
-- There's no place it doesn't exist.
"Come,,you must be more specific!"
-- It is in the ant.
"As low a thing as that?"
-- It is in the grass.
"But that's lower still!"
-- It is in the tiles and shards.
"How can it be so low?"
--It is in the piss and shit.
Master Tung-kuo made no reply. (p. 241)
The highest aim of Hindu and Buddhist religious practice (though only striven for by a minority) is "liberation" (moksha or mukti). actually a synonym for the mystical experience. "Enlightenment" and "nirvana" are two more of the numerous appellations pointing to the same experience, each of which brings out one or another aspect, consequence or interpretation of the experience. But the interpretation of mystical experience as "liberation," i.e. freedom, certainly vies for a dominant place among these names for the nameless.
It would be foolish to assert that Hindu ascetics and Buddhist monks aim for precisely the same sort of freedom as do modern political libertarians. For while the latter seek freedom from coercion by others, such mystics are more likely to seek freedom from their own "thought forms" and "distorting emotions" -- because beyond these lies the pure essence of the absolute Self, according to one faction, or else the pure absence of self, according to another: the mystical experience, in either case.
Yet we cannot doubt the class resemblance between these two types of freedom: (1) outer, objective, political, and (2) inner, subjective, metaphysical. It can be no accident that the predominantly mystical (hence freedom-oriented and decentralized) religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism lack Christianity's and Islam's record of religious persecution (forced conversions, slaughtering of the heathens, and the like). The great Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) took the idea of non-harm (ahimsa) so far that, at the height of his political power, he renounced further conquest, abolished the death penalty, and adopted a philosophy of nonviolence for the rest of his administration.
The question of man's nature becomes relevant wherever there is talk of setting men free: for if they are evil, it can be argued, they must not be allowed to make decisions for themselves. What is man's nature then, according to the mystical religions?
Most forms of Buddhism insist that enlightenment (spiritual freedom) is something which all, or nearly all, living beings can eventually attain. Another way of putting it is that such a potential exists in everyone. Thus the famous slogan widely accepted in Chinese Buddhism (including the Ch'an or Zen school): "All beings have the Buddha-nature." Echoes of Chuang-tzu!
As for Hinduism and Taoism, these fundamentally mystical religions also conceive of the true self as perfect, and agree with Socrates in finding the highest wisdom in knowledge of the self, though certainly the self is differently defined in the different systems.
Rand excoriates "mystics" for their attachment to the doctrine of original sin, so destructive to the ideal of liberty:
Damnation is the start of your morality, destruction is its purpose, means and end. Your code begins by damning man as evil....The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin....To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery of nature...yet that is the root of your code. (p. 1025)
But it should be clear by now that what she is denouncing as mysticism is a Christian dogma, not shared by Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which indeed assert the very opposite. Contrast for example the Christian formula "In Adam's fall we sinned all" with the popular Chinese Buddhist phrase "all beings have the Buddha-nature." The Christian saddles us with guilt before we have had a chance to engage in a single action. The Buddhist assures us that, whatever our faults, we have within us the kernel of perfection. The former attitude finds expression in the principal symbol of Christianity, the bloody corpse of Jesus nailed to a cross (even more guilt-inspiring to the faithful than Adam's disobedience in Eden). The latter attitude is depicted by the countless sitting Buddhas that adorn the Orient, which according to Buddhist teaching are properly not objects of worship but images of the potential within each of us.
Confucianism, for the most part a decidedly this-worldly system of interpersonal ethics and principles for statecraft, has fostered a point of view which starts with the assumption that anyone has the raw material to attain Confucian sagehood.
The Confucian gentleman was deemed to have conducted his life correctly only if he constantly strove to make a better human being out of himself (on the assumption that anyone had the raw material to attain Confucian sagehood). His destiny was not primarily to be found in worship of a law-giving God nor yet in obedience to a law-giving emperor. Though there were always totalitarian tendencies in China, a pure Confucian state was visualized as one where the ruler uses not force, but the salutary example of his character, to bring order and harmony into an otherwise unruly populace -- and where the subject has the obligation constantly to strive for more elevated states of being (politically, personally, metaphysically). In the words of the early classic Great Learning:
The ancients who wished clearly to exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the world would first set up good government in their states. Wishing to govern well their states, they would first regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they would first cultivate their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they would first rectify their minds. Wishing to rectify their minds, they would first seek sincerity in their thoughts. Wishing for sincerity in their thoughts, they would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
For only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only whennowledge is extended are thoughts sincere; only when thoughts are sincere are minds rectified; only when minds are rectified are our persons cultivated; only when our persons are cultivated are our families regulated; only when families are regulated are states well governed; and only when states are well governed is there peace in the world.
From the emperor down to the common people, all, without exception, must consider cultivation of the individual character as the root. If the root is in disorder, it is impossible for the branches to be in order. (De Bary, p. 115)
Later forms of Confucianism were modified by Buddhist influence, so that what had begun as a pursuit of character cultivation developed for some Confucians into a pursuit of mystical experience per se.
Our own American philosopher, Emerson (1803-1882), exemplifies nearly as well as Taoism the firm connection between mysticism and distrust of political authority. On the one hand, he is American to the core in his stress on individualism, self-reliance, self-trust, independence (echoing the mood of the American revolution, whose leaders were still alive in his youth), while on the other hand he spoke passionately of mystical identity with Nature, of enlightenment (i.e. mystical experience) as a pillar of life rightly lived.
For example, regarding politics he said:
The less government we have the better, the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal Government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual;...the appearance of the wise man; of whom the existing government is it must be owned, but a shabby imitation....The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State. (Van Doren, p. 200)
And speaking with admiration of his friend Henry David Thoreau, Emerson says:
Idealist as (he) was, standing for abolition of slavery, abolition of tariffs, almost for abolition of government... (Van Doren, p. 573)
Thoreau of course is also well known as a kind of mystic (cf. Walden). As for Emerson's mystical side, we find quotations like the following:
The idealist takes his departure from his consciousness, and reckons the world as an appearance....His thought -- that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. From this transfer of the world into the consciousness, this beholding of all things in the mind, follow easily his whole ethics. It is simpler to be self-dependent. The height, the deity of man is to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force. Society is good when it does not violate me, but best when it is likest to solitude. Everything real is self-existent....[The Transcendentalist] believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy....In action he easily incurs the charge of anti-nomianism by his avowal that he, who is the Law-giver, may with safety not only neglect, but even contravene every written commandment....If there is anything grand and daring in human thought or virtue, any reliance on the vast, the unknown; any presentiment, any extravagance of faith, the spiritualist adopts it as most in nature. The oriental mind has always tended to this largeness. Buddhism is an expression of it. (Atkinson, pp. 88-91)
We find then, this common thread in the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Emerson: that internal self-cultivation replaces external law as a means toward perfection of both the individual and the state.
We must distinguish between several types of mysticism, according not to the experience (it remains essentially the same), but to the interpretation. We have already seen that God is not necessary to mystics: they may be either theistic or nontheistic. Within each of these groups, there is a further split, according to whether the mystic's attitude toward life is negative or affirmative. For example, Taoists and Buddhists are both fundamentally nontheists, but while Taoists tend to understand mystical experience as some kind of contact with the life force (though not with a personal god), or with nature, some Buddhists like to dwell on mystical experience as a kind of extinction, or separation from nature. Buddhists have in fact often been criticized by other oriental religions and by other Buddhists for excessive hostility to the family, society, and the phenomenal world in general. Adherents of Jainism, a numerically small but historically important religion in India, have even been known to seek liberation by starving themselves to death.
Mystical experience does not imply any particular theological stance. It certainly does, however, always provide religious practitioners with the energy to maintain the intensity of their commitment.
These distinctions can be summarized in the following table:
When one discovers absolute ecstasy, peace and wisdom within oneself, what further need to depend on others? The mystical experience creates a sense of autonomy. But what political or priestly authority, what system of conventional mores, wishes to tolerate total autonomy in its subjects?
Prof. Agehananda Bharati, whom we quoted above on the nature of the experience, argues that:
Mysticism in its motivation and in its pursuit constitutes what is illicit, anathema in any specific social and religious tradition....The mystic merges, his ecstatic, often eroticized report is much more than an analogy to him; he does it -- he actually transgresses the rules of his society, he elicits within himself the keenest pleasure, and if successful, he creates what no husband, lover, or lecher succeeds in doing, he makes orgasm permanent, uninterrupted. The intimacy with which he handles his body, his mind and other minds, and auxiliary objects around him to achieve and stabilize this state, is forbidden in all societies...Since intimacy makes for autonomy, total intimacy entails total autonomy, and no society so far has put up with this possibility in any individual.... Intimate drugs, intimate love, and mysticism -- the most intimate of all if it were known to more establishmentarians - these are the real dangers, for they alienate a man's mind and body from the king; hence they are illicit. Mysticism was known to the priests as the supreme danger, as the irrevocable launching site for alienation from the king and his sacerdotal allies; hence they persecuted it when it appeared. (pp. 200-202)
If some Asian cultures seem less hostile to mysticism than our own, this is because their religious organizations are so decentralized:
The mystic is culturally accepted only in societies which have no ecclesiastical organization or a very weak one. To this rule I find no exception. (ibid., p. 195)
The Protestant Reformation, while for the most part devoid of true mysticism (with significant exceptions), did amount to an effort to break free from the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman church and the priests who represented it. In this case the Bible rather than the mystical experience was often what the Church tried to keep away from ordinary people. Authoritarian religion can tolerate no independent revelations (i.e. information sources), so not only did the church oppress and murder scientists and witches, but even a Bible scholar like William Tyndale (1492-1536) was executed, for translating the New Testament into English.
What does the mystical experience do for the person who has it? It creates self-esteem, the positive evaluation of the individual by himself. When value and energy are internally derived, the individual is immunized against control by other minds. Deep trust and respect for himself frees a person from dependence on positive evaluations from others. We all need energy sources, but some of us strike oil on our own property. Or to shift the metaphor, we discover the White Hole (opposite of a Black Hole) which is our self in its Absolute nature -- a boundless source of energy, pouring forth from some infinite beyond/within, a creator rather than an effect of its environment, free rather than in bondage.
The doctrine of original sin, on the other hand, plugs up that private oil well and creates an absolute dependence on the Great Electric Utility (the church, or a political authority) to furnish psychic heat and light. It turns us into Black Holes, lacking faith in ourselves and completely vulnerable to those who would offer absolution (the church or a fanatical political movement).
I will return to this aspect of the subject later~ but we can see in this context the proper role and meaning of faith: trust in one's own inner light -- not "uncritical acceptance of unproven propositions."
The years since Rand flourished have disclosed astonishing new facts about the functioning of the human brain. Though linked to each other in normal people by a thin strand of tissue, the two cerebral hemispheres pursue markedly different specializations in their modes of cognition. Though oversimplified, it is roughly correct to say that one hemisphere is predominantly analytical, the other "synthetical" (holistic, intuitive).
These and other modern findings in brain research have made completely untenable the claim of many philosophical ultra-rationalists, who like Rand denied that a thing was worth knowing if it could not be known through analysis. Scientific progress is now understood to depend partly upon those spontaneous flashes of insight that bestow a whole vision of reality upon the well-prepared mind. Einstein himself is known for having, in his most creative moments, resorted to mental images rather than Aristotelian logic.
"Mysticism" is a word that Rand uses to denounce those who are hostile to reason -- as if mystics were enemies of logic. But most mystics, like most artists and musicians, have no particular hostility to the rational. Rather they choose to focus upon the realm of the nonrational, the intuitive, in order to sink more fully into the realm of what they are trying directly to experience. And like artists and musicians (and great scientists), mystics are at their best when they are able to employ their practiced and analytical skills to formulate symbols that will convey to others at least some sense of what they have been experiencing.
Rand herself was powerful and persuasive not merely because of her verbal-analytical skills, but also because she was able to put these in the service of an exalted, intuitive vision.
No appeal to recent brain research is necessary for us to comprehend why things have to be known in at least two ways to be really known at all. It amounts simply to the difference between part and whole. As any high school student forced to dissect Shakespeare and Dickens can testify, appreciation of great art is more likely to be squelched than stimulated when analysis is the only mode of cognition used to apprehend it. But we must also part company with those on the other extreme, carefree romantics who suggest that discipline or careful study inevitably stifles the spirit.
Not all partisans of freedom look upon pure rationality as the golden road to Eden. Friedrich Hayek has some interesting comments in this connection:
[The modern European] development of a theory of liberty took place mainly in the eighteenth century. It began in two countries, England and France,...[the former] empirical and unsystematic, [the latter] speculative and rationalistic....It has been the rationalist, plausible, and apparently logical argument of the French tradition, with its flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason, that has progressively gained influence....Though these two groups [of philosophers, e.g. Hume for the English and Descartes for the French] are now commonly lumped together as the ancestors of modern liberalism, there is hardly a greater contrast imaginable than that between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty....[The English tradition] finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, [the French] believes it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose....It is the second view...that has become the origin of totalitarian democracy....The British philosophers laid the foundations of a profound and essentially valid theory, while the rationalist school was simply and completely wrong. (pp. 54-56)
Who can still maintain that the analytical is the only valid mode of cognition? And who can still assert that mathematics and scientific theory exclude paradoxical descriptions of the world and the mind? As Einstein once said, our theories determine what we perceive. Reality remains, but theories about it come and go, as Kant, and lately Thomas Kuhn (see bibliography) have shown us. We have learned from Heisenberg some of the limits of our formal knowledge of the world, and from Gödel some of the limits of logical and mathematical systems themselves. Light, indeed any form of matter or energy, can be thought of according to our convenience as composed of either waves or particles. The cells of our bodies can be viewed as complete individuals or as parts of a larger whole. No suspension bridges or skyscrapers, computers or airplanes, electron microscopes or spaceships, could ever be built without resort to "irrational" and "imaginary" numbers and a rigorous concept of the infinite. Today, when scientists ask us to contemplate such phenomena as the curvature of space, the Big Bang, and subatomic time reversal, let us not bridle at the paradoxical and fantastic descriptions to which mystics feel they must resort in order to convey something of their experiences (and by implication, something of Reality itself) to us.
When science studies the world, theory needs experiment (the empirical) for verification, and experiment needs theory (the rational) for interpretation. The nonscientist too best uses both modes of cognition to learn about his environment: he analyzes (theorizes) and he experiences (experiments).
"Faith, "good," and "evil" are words frequently used, or misused, in a religious context. A nontheistic, life-affirming mystic, and those who guide their conduct by his revelation, will use these words in somewhat unfamiliar senses, senses which avoid that conflict with the secular search for truth (science) that has cursed conventional Western theology through the centuries.
Faith, which I have touched upon already, is denounced in the following way by Rand:
[You mystics of the mind] hasten to proclaim that faith is your cardinal principle, that reason is on the side of your destroyers, but yours is the side of faith. You declare...that there is no rational justification for freedom, for property, for justice, for rights, that they rest on a mystical insight and can be accepted only on faith. (p. 979)
But for a non-theistic mystic, faith means fundamentally faith in oneself, though not merely in one's own rational nature. It is a sense of confidence that under normal circumstances the dynamic and partly unconscious forces that underlie one's usual awareness will create rather than destroy, formulate rather than disintegrate, laugh rather than cry. Just as the universe, with all its novas and colliding galaxies, evolves ever higher levels of complexity and organization within itself, so too the moments of destruction and misery in the life of an individual or a biosphere are then understood as mere eddies in the entropy-defying upward flow of creative evolution, i.e., the Tao. Henri Bergson, and more recently Teilhard de Chardin, represented this point of view.
Indeed, if we think about it, such an attitude can rescue us from the enervating, suicidal gloom which existentialists used to peddle as wisdom. Far from wisdom, it was really the opposite -- the result of unduly restricting the focus of one's awareness, of ignoring the context of events. For if there is death, it only opens the way to more and richer life, albeit in other individuals. Mice die so that cats may live. And in the competition of ideas, doctrines whose only effect is to embitter and impoverish the lives of believers tend to lose out in the long run to the invigorating and life-affirming systems.
We find for example that, pessimistic and world-denying as the conventional idea of original sin may be, it would not have survived if it did not open the way for higher life "in Christ." Freud first taught that the dark libido had to be kept in check by the superego, but even he had finally to posit a creative life-force (Eros) at the root of consciousness. And Marx thought economic classes to be in desperate conflict with each other, but what exhilarated him was the prospect that the conflict will assuredly give birth to a more perfect world, where without having to be forced, people will behave well toward one another, and the State can safely wither away.
Christianity, psychoanalysis and Marxism thus share with nontheistic mysticism an intensely positive vision of the future. But they do not share mysticism's intense faith, that is trust, in the creative potentialities of the individual human being before any intervention by an external entity: God, therapist, or party commissar. The "faith" of the nontheistic, life-affirming mystic is nothing other than profound self-esteem. And this resolves the apparent disagreement between Rand and the mystics, for as Rand herself declares, "No value is higher than self-esteem." (p. 981)
Now faith in oneself (and others) is impossible if one believes human nature to be fundamentally evil. Could it be that human nature is fundamentally good? What then are "good" and "evil"?
Excluding from the discussion all those virtues and vices which are a merely private matter, I am here concerned only with the way that individuals behave toward each other.
"Evil" is the imposition of control on, i.e. coercion directed against, a harmless and non-consenting mind. It is no more and no less than one person making decisions for the life of another, against the latter's will. (Adult control over children is no exception to this, inasmuch as children may be understood to have given implicit consent to their guardians to do whatever is necessary to prepare them for a life of mature autonomy.) This is close, but not identical to, Hayek's perspective:
Coercion occurs when one man's actions are made to serve another man's will, not for his own but for the other's purpose....Coercion thus is bad because it prevents a person from using his mental powers to the full and consequently from making the greatest contribution that he is capable of to the community.... Though the great men, from John Milton and Edmund Burke to Lord Acton and Jacob Burckhardt, who have represented power as the archdevil, were right in what they meant, it is misleading to speak simply of power in this connection. It is not power as such -- the capacity to achieve what one wants -- that is bad, but only the power to coerce, to force other men to serve one's will by the threat of inflicting harm....It is not power in the sense of an extension of our capacities which corrupts, but the subjection of other human wills to ours, the use of other men against their will for our purposes. (pp. 133-135)
The inflicting of physical harm merely amounts to a special case of "the subjection of other human wills to ours," since we can afford to presume, given no evidence to the contrary, that any human (or living being) will shrink from pain.
What does it really mean to subjugate another's will to ours? Simply to deprive that person of existence as an independent agent who could make choices in conflict with our own. It is a kind of annihilation of the other. Seen in this light, slavery is only slightly removed from murder.
Paradigms of evil daily infest the nation's TV screens -- and on Saturday mornings, from the mouths of cartoon villains, evil speaks plainly its ultimate purpose: to conquer the entire universe -- in other words, to subjugate ALL existing minds to its will. Murder and mayhem are bad enough, but they amount to mere means: the real purpose of the assorted mad scientists and alien robots who represent evil in these modern morality plays, is to "subjugate other wills" to theirs.
The cartoons, not to mention the prime time cops-and-robbers shows, are crude but correct in their depictions of the essential feature of evil. But they have no concept of the good, other than to portray it as that which struggles against and conquers the forces of evil. Good is here formally almost indistinguishable from evil, except in the object of its conquest ("evil" rather than other minds).
But the Good has to amount to more than that, or else it would be completely dependent on evil for its own existence -- a paradoxical and intolerable situation. How could the Good be merely another variety of coercion, differing from evil only in the object of its conquest? Must it not rather be the absence of coercion -- that is, releasing others to conduct their lives as they wish?
Philosophers have argued for millenia over the nature of the Good, and nothing said here will make a dent in the discussion. But as I have suggested, we need not here consider beauty (or the ability to appreciate it), wisdom, diligence, self-discipline or any of the private virtues under this rubric. I am concerned here only with the ways in which people act toward each other.
Yet we must ask, is it enough that we refrain from coercion? A strict policy of laissez-faire in one's relations with noncriminals does seem to have the defect that the helpless are then left without help. And some libertarians do fall into this trap, moving from a criticism of governmental social welfare programs to a disapproval of any help extended to the poor and the unfortunate by anyone, even a private citizen.
"Compassion" and "kindness": though these words are cynically misused by many whose real (if often unconscious) purpose is to enhance governmental power over individual lives, they do represent authentic and socially valuable feelings. How could children and the unfortunate poor be denied the care and concern of others? But the problem lies in the fact that what passes for an act of compassion is all too often a manipulation, or a patronizing of humans felt by the donor to be inferior to himself.
Laissez-faire without compassion falls as short of the Good as does compassion without respect. Still, each of these incomplete forms of the interpersonal Good points in its own way to the summit: which is, to will the enhancement of other's abilities to attain their goals.
Evil's true opposite is not the conquest of evil. In fact the latter amounts to evil's twin, using as it does the method of evil (i.e. conquest). No, the truer inverse of evil is the assent to another's autonomy. Where Evil tries to extinguish another's power, Good tries to enhance it. Where Evil suppresses and destroys, Good encourages and creates. Where the one weakens and enervates, the other empowers. Thus the interpersonal Good achieves its proper expression, not by directly combatting evil, but by acting on other human beings in a way opposite from it.
Murray Rothbard finds the basis of natural rights in the right to self-ownership:
The most viable method of elaborating the natural-rights statement of the libertarian position is to divide it into parts, and to begin with the basic axiom of the "right to self-ownership."8 The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to "own" his own body: that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation. (p. 28)
Rothbard goes on in the same passage to elucidate the objectionable features of "other-ownership," either where one class has the right to own another class, or where each individual owns a tiny part of everyone else, where everyone owns everyone.
A little reflection however discloses the weakness of this axiom as a logical foundation for a philosophy of freedom. To Rothbard, "self-ownership" evidently means (i) ownership by the self of the body. However his formulation "self-ownership" could also mean (ii) ownership of the self by the self -- that is, the self owning itself.
But if (i) the self owns and controls something different from itself (the human body), we might ask: How does it differ from the body? Does it have weight, dimensions, duration? Is it measurable in any way at all? Clearly it is not -- yet it seems necessary to postulate its existence.
Or else (ii) the self owns itself, in which case Rothbard seems to use "body" and "self" interchangeably, i.e. the body owns the body. But the English word "ownership" defines an unequal relationship between different entities. Slaves and their masters do not own each other, nor do clothes or houses own the people who have bought them (except in another, entirely different sense of "to own"). It would seem fractured language, permissible perhaps in poetry but hardly as the starting point of a chain of rigorous logic, to allow the quintessentially binary concept of ownership to be stretched to permit its use in describing single entities.
So "self-ownership" implies either a ghost controlling the bodily machine, or else the expression is illegitimately extended to suggest that an entity can be simultaneously both terms in a binary relationship.
Perhaps it is unfair to belabor Rothbard with this. Psychologists, philosophers, and most of all, mystics, have wrestled all their lives with the problem, "What is the nature of the self?" Recently Douglas Hofstadter has argued convincingly from the point of view of computer science (with a few good doses of Zen -- significantly, an intellectual tradition that derives partly from Chuang-tzu) that self-referential operations inherently produce paradoxes. The paradigm for this is the man who says, "I always lie." Is he lying or is he telling the truth? If he is lying, he is telling the truth; if he is telling the truth, he is lying.
Because it has been their vocation for thousands of years, it is precisely the mystics who have penetrated furthest into the meaning of this knotty word, "self." And if we are to take seriously even a shred of their repeated, and repeatable, testimony, the "self" may turn out to be a great deal richer than that eternal soul of which Christianity speaks. Is it not a conduit for an enormous creative force? Does not the same force that builds galaxies and oceans ultimately also build cities and poems? And could this force indeed have something to do with consciousness, with life -- yet without being external to us, without being our separate master, as the religious authoritarians would have us believe?
Economics and mysticism may well be a surprising juxtaposition. Friedrich Hayek clearly stated his rejection of the latter:
The antirationalistic position here taken must not be confounded with irrationalism or any appeal to mysticism. [This] is not an abdication of reason but a rational examination of the field where reason is appropriately put in control. (p. 69)
The liberal [i.e. libertarian]...is as far from the crude rationalism of the socialist...as from the mysticism to which the conservative so frequently has to resort. (p. 406)
Hayek makes clear that what he has rejected under the label of mysticism is hostility to reason, irrationalism, "blind faith" -- in this he is at one with Rand. But he does not accompany Rand to the opposite extreme, the blind veneration of rationality:
In opposition to the naive rationalism which treats our present reason as an absolute, we must continue the efforts which David Hume commenced when he "turned against the enlightenment its own weapons" and undertook "to whittle down the claims of reason by the use of rational analysis." (p. 69)
That there is agreement between Hayek and Rand on equating mysticism to abdication of reason is no surprise, since both of them had in mind the typical Western form of sacred ardor. In the Christian world, religiosity has tended to be defined in terms of one's belief or acceptance of certain verbal propositions. "Jesus is the son of God," "the Bible is inspired," "God will answer my prayers." Thus an understandable tendency arises among the strongly religious or "mystical" to zealously believe certain propositions independent of the evidence, simply as an expression of devout religious "faith" -- almost as a compensation, it sometimes seems, for the failure of such persons to achieve the real purpose of the religious quest: mystical experience. However in the life-affirming, non-theistic mysticism so common in the historical cultures of the Orient, experience or state of mind matters a great deal more than acceptance or rejection of various theological propositions.
Nontheistic mysticism, unwilling to postulate of a Supreme Being even so much as the latter's existence, abjures also every dogmatic pronouncement about the world. Verbal descriptions and analyses must all be tested against direct experience. Much of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy is made up a closely reasoned criticism of the ways in which unaided reason can mislead us. The position which is finally taken denies that even Mahayana Buddhist philosophy (or the Buddha for that matter) can make any statements that are true in an absolute sense, that is, without regard to the context of the discussion or presuppositions of the speaker. The Absolute is for experiencing and living, an order of reality prior to talking, analyzing and making interpretations. Reason has its proper place, and rightly used it is a magnificent tool. But each mystical practitioner must understand that to talk about is not the same as to be, and that the analytical, discriminating function of the mind may actually inhibit his direct experience with the source of existence deep within himself.
We find then in both Hayek and nontheistic mysticism a deep respect for reason, coupled with a refusal to acknowledge it as omnipotent. There is, they seem to agree, some realm of human experience which transcends or underlies rationality. As Hayek says, in passages adjacent to those quoted above:
The reader will probably wonder by now what role there remains to be played by reason in the ordering of social affairs, if a policy of liberty demands so much refraining from deliberate control, so much acceptance of the undirected and spontaneously grown. The first answer is that, if it has become necessary to seek appropriate limits to the uses of reason here, to find these limits is itself a most important and difficult exercise of reason. Moreover, if our stress here has been necessarily on those limits, we have certainly not meant to imply thereby that reason has no important positive task. Reason undoubtedly is man's most precious possession. Our argument is intended to show merely that it is not all-powerful and that the belief that it can become its own master and control its own development may yet destroy it...[In order] to use our reason intelligently,...we must preserve that indispensable matrix of the uncontrolled and non-rational which is the only environment wherein reason can grow and operate effectively. (p. 69)
What I have described as the liberal [i.e. libertarian] position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the right ones or even that we can find all the answers. He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever nonrational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural sources of knowledge where his reason fails him. (pp. 406-407)
Geoffrey Sampson sums up Hayek's thought in these terms: "The master idea in [his] philosophy is that many of the most valuable social institutions are the result of human action but not of human design." (p. 169) Two simple examples of these are language (in all its baffling complexity and diversity across the world) and settlement patterns (towns and regions growing and spreading in ways which are the intention of no single member of the community). In all such cases, human design, i.e. rational planning, turns out to produce a poorer product than the accumulated, spontaneous, unplanned experience of generations.
Hayek does not attack reason, as he and Rand think mystics do; rather he shows us its limits. But unlike the lady novelist and philosopher, Hayek does not hesitate to attack the pretensions of reason, where it seeks to rule outside its proper sphere:
It would hardly be unjust to say that the rationalistic approach is here opposed to almost all that is the distinct product of liberty and that gives liberty its value. Those who believe that all useful institutions are deliberate contrivances and who cannot conceive of anything serving a human purpose that has not been consciously designed are almost of necessity enemies of freedom. For them freedom means chaos. (p. 61)
He never tires of teaching us reason's limitations. Even the free market can be understood as an individual's submission to forces which cannot be understood by him or any single person.
The global claims which both Rand and Marxist advocates of centralized planning make on behalf of reason -- that it can deal with every problem, forecast every difficulty, understand every situation -- are themselves irrational. For though reason, like a computer, has incredible powers, it cannot do all things. And for Hayek, one of the principal false claims which reason makes is its pretension to predict the future choices of freely choosing human agents. This fact has doomed every effort to transform social science into "hard" science, and continues to make ridiculous the well-intended (?) pretensions of benevolent authoritarians to rearrange our lives for us:
Hayek has coined the term scientism for the attitude which regards consciously designed institutions as necessarily superior to institutions which grow up haphazardly [e.g. France after the revolution]....To Hayek, political liberalism [libertarianism] and rejection of scientistic social engineering are all of a piece. Both stress the virtues of allowing social progress to emerge gradually and spontaneously from the attempts of innumerable free individuals to find the good life for themselves; both exclude the possibility that society can be planned by a central guiding intelligence, however benevolent. (Sampson, pp. 170-171)
Let us look at a few more statements by Hayek on the unavoidability of ignorance and the tyranny of the conscious mind:
No human mind can comprehend all the knowledge which guides the actions of society. (p. 4)
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle -- they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments. [quoting Whitehead, from Introduction to Mathematics, London, 1911] The Socratic maxim that the recognition of our ignorance is the beginning of wisdom has profound significance for our understanding of society....It might be said that civilization begins when the individual in the pursuit of his ends can make use of more knowledge than he has himself acquired and when he can transcend the boundaries of his ignorance by profiting from knowledge he does not himself possess. (p.22)
Ever since the beginning of modern science, the best minds have recognized that "the range of acknowledged ignorance will grow with the advance of science." [quoting G. de Santillana. Then quoting Herbert Spencer, who says "somewhere" that:] "In science the more we know, the more extensive the contact with nescience." Unfortunately, the popular effect of this scientific advance has been a belief, seemingly shared by many scientists, that the range of our ignorance is steadily diminishing and that we can therefore aim at more comprehensive and deliberate control of all human activities. It is for this reason that those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom....The more men know, the smaller the share of all that knowledge becomes that any one mind can absorb. The more civilized we become, the more relatively ignorant must each individual be of the facts on which the working of his civilization depends. (p. 26)
The case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends....We must recognize that the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen. (p. 29)
Many scientists, probably the majority, look upon evolution as a fundamentally blind and mechanical process. Any acknowledgement of the role of mind at any level seems to them (i.e. to their minds) to open the floodgates to creationism, that latter-day Christian dogma poorly disguised as science.
But a minority of eminent thinkers (like Albert-Szent Gyoergyi, a Nobel prize winning biologist) are caught at neither of these extreme alternatives, holding instead that evolution is a natural consequence of some kind of life force inherent in all living beings, a constant striving upward to higher and higher degrees of organization and consciousness, in complete disregard of the second law of thermodynamics (the principle of entropy). Though it may seem radical to both fundamentalist Christians and scientistic scientists, such a perspective actually occupies a kind of middle ground between those extremes. Neither must there be a God to act as creator and ultimate authority outside the material world, nor does the material world stand alone, its parts knocking into each other randomly for all eternity. Each new level of order emerges without a centralized Creator of that order, rather as a consequence of acts, strivings and even decisions separately made by all the various living beings in the system. Such order could not emerge without the driving impulse of the life force in each being.
Compare this with Hayek's comments on spontaneous order (in his discussion of the free market and other human institutions):
[The British philosophical tradition showed that] something greater than man's individual mind may grow from men's fumbling efforts....For the first time it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility -- the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution. (p. 59)
As in the natural world as a whole, the driving force of the free market is Spirit (we could say "self"), here connoting the choice and imagination and desire of every human participating in economic relations with others. Order arises mysteriously, spontaneously, out of what is truly an unimaginably complex network of relationships and transactions. But the fact that we cannot fully grasp that network, that order, at any particular time, does not amount to proof that there is no order to the system. The order created by authority turns out to be a pallid, simplistic, monotonous affair, no matter how marvelous the talents or even humanitarian impulses of the Authority -- simply because no person, or even institution, can ever know or feel what the millions of people in an economic or political system know and feel. And as Chuang-tzu said long ago, no one can decide for another.
Not only does the economic aspect of society resemble the evolutionary process in the natural world, but society as a whole behaves like the natural world, and like an organism within this natural world:
[We must see that] human civilization has a life of its own, that all our efforts to improve things must operate within a working whole which we cannot entirely control, and the operation of whose forces we can hope merely to facilitate and assist so far as we understand them. Our attitude ought to be similar to that of the physician toward a living organism: like him, we have to deal with a self-maintaining whole which is kept going by forces which we cannot replace and which we must therefore use in all we try to achieve. What can be done to improve it must be done by working with these forces rather than against them. (pp. 69-70)
As Sampson said above, Hayek's view "excludes the possibility that society can be planned by a central, guiding intelligence, however benevolent."
It is interesting, even remarkable, to find the following modern spokesman for the Taoist (nontheistic mystical) perspective voicing very similar thoughts in regard to the question of control and spontaneity in the human and natural world:
[Modern man, alienated from nature, feels that] the future organization of the world can no longer be left to the complex and subtle processes of natural balance from which life and man himself arose. When the process brought forth human intelligence, it introduced an entirely new principle of order. From now on, it is claimed [by those who are alienated], the organization of life cannot happen, it must be controlled, however intricate the task. In this task the human intellect will no longer be able to rely upon the innate and natural "wisdom" of the organism which produced it. It will have to stand alone, relying strictly upon its own resources. Whether he likes it or not, man -- or rather the conscious intelligence of man -- must henceforth rule the world.
This is an astonishing jump to conclusions for a being who knows so little about himself, and who will even admit that such sciences of the intelligence as psychology and neurology are not beyond the stage of preliminary dabbling. For if we do not know even how we manage to be conscious and intelligent, it is most rash to assume that we know what the role of conscious intelligence will be, and still more that it is competent to order the world... (Alan Watts, p. 2)
The Chinese phrase which is ordinarily translated as "nature" is tzu-jan, literally "of itself so," and thus a better equivalent might be "spontaneity." This is almost Aristotle's idea of God as the unmoved mover, for nature in both whole and part is not regarded as being moved by any external agency. Every movement in the endless knot is a movement of the knot, acting as a total organism, though the parts, or loops, of the knot are not looked upon as passive entities moved by the whole....All art and artifice, all human action, is felt to be the same as natural or spontaneous action -- a world-feeling marvellously expressed in Chinese poetry and landscape painting, whose technique involves the fascinating discipline of the "controlled accident," of doing exactly the right thing without force or self-conscious intention. (ibid., p. 10)
I have distinguished between various forms of mysticism, or more accurately, between various verbal interpretations of the mystical experience. In one dimension we find that mystics have derived from their experiences either an affirmative or negative attitude to life and the natural world; in another dimension we find a differentiation between theistic and nontheistic.
It is time to make a final distinction, valid both for mystics and for political libertarians. We inquire, does this mystic, or this libertarian, live a life which is for and about himself alone, absorbed in the pursuit of his ecstasy/liberty in disregard of the ecstasies/liberties of others?
There do exist certain libertarians who view any concern for others as a distraction from the sole proper object of attention, which they think to be themselves. Other libertarians accept that no one is completely free unless we are all free. For them the urge to personal liberation does not sever the bonds of compassion that tie them to other human beings (and often, animals).
There is a fascinating parallel to this opposition in the history of Buddhism. Around half a millenium after the time of the Buddha (who lived ca. 560-480 B.C.), there arose a new philosophical, and ultimately popular movement, which called itself the Mahayana ("greater vehicle"). Labelling as Hinayana ("lesser vehicle") the earlier forms of Buddhism, which were concerned above all with personal realization, the new movement argued that the highest religious experience (enlightenment, Buddhahood, the mystical experience, etc.) could not be had without simultaneously striving for the enlightenment of others. According to the new teachings, the potential Buddhahood of every other living being had to be acknowledged in order for personal enlightenment to be achieved. While admitting that the "Hinayana" still qualified as Buddhism, the Mahayana schools and sects were conscious of making an important spiritual advance, in having that they had restored compassion (concern for others) to the wisdom (perfection of the self) already promoted by the earlier Buddhist schools. It was these newer Mahayana schools that turned out to be the more influential in the formation of Chinese Buddhism, no doubt partly because these were also the closest to the Taoist point of view that perceived the ultimate reality in every scrap of the phenomenal world.
As the Mahayana Buddhists insisted, there can be no contradiction in striving for the enlightenment (freedom) of others at the same time as one strives for enlightenment (freedom) for oneself. For the apparent contradiction is resolved by the awareness of our interconnections with each other, by our dawning knowledge that though we are individuals, paradoxically our destiny is unthinkable apart from other beings. Those mystics and those libertarians who insist that enlightenment/freedom requires a radical separation from society, a severing of ties with other humans -- a life where compassion, love and shared ecstasy are seen as a distraction from the main quest for enlightenment/freedom -- are prisoners of a lower understanding. Their dogma cannot stand, once they realize that virtually all they know, even about their zealous pursuit of a more elevated self, derives from other human beings, alive or dead, who in teaching them valuable knowledge, whether directly or indirectly, enriched their lives.
At the foundation then, of both the mystical quest and the quest for political and economic freedom, we find this odd paradox: the most resolute pursuit of self-perfection requires a constant awareness of one's interrelationships with others. Once aware of this, the seeker/activist sees no contradiction in working to enhance his personal and political relationships with others, or even to enhance the personal and political relationships between third parties, at the same time as he is focused on his own development.
It may be that the Greek and the Confucian traditions are here our best teachers: wisdom was for both Socrates and Confucius inseparable from excellence of character. And excellence of character is solely revealed in one's relationships with others.
Emptiness and the Institutional Suicide of Chinese Buddhism, by Neal Donner
Philosophy of Relgion
Atkinson, Brooks, ed. The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Modern Library, 1964.
Bharati, Agehananda. The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism. Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson. 1976.
De Bary, Wm. Theodore, ed. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1. New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1960.
Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Hofstadter, Douglas. Goedel, Escher and Bach. New York: Vintage Press, 1979.
Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harpers, 1945.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Modern Library, 1929.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Pahnke, Walter N., and William A. Richards. "Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism." Journal of Religion and Health, 5 (1966), pp. 175-208. Reprinted in Tart, Altered States of Consciousness.
Poulain, A. The Graces of Interior Prayer: a Treatise on Mystical Theology. St. Louis: Herder, 1950.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet Books, 1957.
Rothbard, Murray. For a New Liberty. New York: Collier Books, 1978.
Sampson, Geoffrey. An End to Allegiance. London: Temple Smith, 1984.
Stace, W. Mysticism and Philosophy. Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1960.
Szent-gyoergi, Albert. "Drive In Living Matter to Perfect Itself." Synthesis, 1 (1977), pp. 14-26. Reprinted from the Journal of Individual Psychology.
Tart, Charles. Altered States of Consciousness. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969.
Van Doren, Mark, ed. The Portable Emerson. New York: Viking, 1946.
Waley, Arthur. Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. Garden City: Doubleday, 1939.
Watson, Burton, tr. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1968. All references to Chuang-tzu are to this translation, unless otherwise indicated.
Watts, Alan. Nature, Man and Woman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1958.
Webster's New International Dictionary.