The Avatara and The Savior
The Philosophical Foundations of Politics
By Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD
This paper was originally presented in Madrid to the Ministers of the European Community and later published in The World & I under the title “The philosophical foundations of neo-conservatism”.
“The wise discriminate and decide; fools let others decide for them.” –
Kalidasa, Act1, Malavikagnimitra
Introduction: The Battle Field
This paper is a reflection upon the philosophical foundations of the dividing line that separates liberals and conservatives in American politics. It is also a reflection upon the dividing line that separates conservatives from neoconservatives, or theologians from mystics, or scientists from scientism. These reflections are distilled from twenty years of forced reflection and forced covert action in that most liberal of Institutions of the world’s greatest democracy, the American State University (this particular one at Stony Brook, New York). It is impossible to describe all that is entailed by the human soul laboring under such liberal conditions, and to keep its militant spirit, the soul has had to engage in an amount of exercise that exceeds one life’s fair share. Nor can I set forth in detail all the reasons for supporting the sad conclusion that most liberals in the universities are liberals because they are not free to be otherwise; they are constitutionally immune to the temptation to embrace any other form of political involvement. What follows reflects the conclusions drawn from such an experience.
I take as my starting point the affirmation of Willmore Kendall in The Conservative Affirmation (Boston: Regnery Gateway, 1985; first published in 1963) that there is a dividing line – a line of battle, two sides of a war – that separates conservatives and liberals. It is not easy to identify in a general manner what the battle is about, even when we are able to pinpoint what is at issue in such particular skirmishes as: (1) immigration quotas (present shares of population vs. scientific quotas that avoid discrimination by race); (2) the elimination of income tax loop-holes (which would require the rich to pay 92 percent of their income in taxes and preclude their leaving any inheritance); (3) whether or not to abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities; (4) full employment; (5) the size of the national debt; (7) public housing; (8) federal aid to education; (9) the contractual nature of justice; (10) whether equality of rights requires government intervention, and so on.
It is difficult to establish the place of the dividing line, since the line itself is moved around at the convenience of the Right and the Left. The Church may sometimes be found on either side (depending on the particular issue), and perhaps on the wrong side in any case. Individuals change allegiances for may reasons, a major reason being that they find the foundations of the line unclear when they make decisions and sponsor causes.
Tracing the dividing line in its overall configuration (rather than focusing on local skirmishes) and discovering also how the global war got started and what will have been decided when the war is over should be of more than passing interest.
My second point of departure is the claim of recent thinkers – Tage Lindbom on the Left and Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora on the Right – that this war and its succession of battles belong, like the successive flames of a burning candle, to the same flame, which is the human soul. Lindbom in The Tares and the Good Grain (Mercer University Press, 1983), believes that the Liberal Revolution entered the political arena with the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, which was only a façade for three passions in the human soul: egalitarianism, power, and greed. Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora, in La Envidia Igualitaria (Planeta, 1984, and in English Egaliterian Envy, iUniverse.com 2000), places the decisions and passions of politics under the general rubric and policymaker of envy – again a passion of the soul, though at a more radical foundational level than Lindbom’s.
Kendall’s analysis of the war between liberals and conservatives is a brilliant and civil polemic that unmasks liberal arguments. On the whole the position he takes assures conservative minds that reason is on the side of conservatism; he fails, however, to convert any liberals. Lindbom and Fernandez de la Mora take a psychoanalytical and theological approach to politics; by affirming that liberalism is a religious position like that of the devil or of a fallen soul, they offer consolation to conservative minds that God is on their side. Fernandez de la Mora becomes particularly provocative when he asserts that envy, as opposed to argumentation, is an inner foundation, an inner act, a division within the soul.
These three authors contribute in different ways to understanding the basis of political masks, though their efforts could be read as more of a strategy for weakening and inflicting agony upon the enemy than for providing a crucial basis for conservative politics.
Perhaps, Fernandez de la Mora’s position is the most interesting one philosophically. He makes it clear that the division between liberals and conservatives results from the passion of envy in the soul. He also explains how the passion of envy generates the assumption that the achievements of conservatism and of civilization in general belong by right to the liberal masses. Egalitarian envy disregards the fact that those achievements were the result of enormous efforts and moral and intellectual qualities of which it wants no part. Envy is the source of the rebellion of the masses, as Ortega y Gasset pointed out. Envy is also the source of the distinction introduced in this essay between icon (the good image) and simulacrum (the bad image), Avatara and Savior. But perhaps the three authors cited are not oblivious to history on this point. One philosopher who had tried to educate the liberals of his time – namely, Socrates – was condemned to death by democracy. His educated liberals had become the tyrants of Athens.
What is needed is a clear account of the facts and the reasons for the division between conservatives and liberals from the beginning of Western history. This is preferable to rewriting earlier history in terms that are appropriate to recent history or the current scene. Liberals and conservatives will not be reconciled by arguments. Nor will uncompromising passions unify them. We tend to pre-suppose that the conservative and neoconservative position is a clearly formulated one and that everyone knows what it is. This, however, is not clear. Nor is it clear why the word ‘conservatism’ should be distinguished from ‘neo-conservatism.’ I am also interested in presenting a new model “the Avatara” as a possibility for a different kind of political and human engagement. But before proceeding any further let us point out these two models of political action, that though hidden from any discussion are the background images against which all political activity can eventually be reduced to.
The Savior and the Avatara
The Savior-image we know historically, from Phoenician history, as the go between God and the sinful race of humans. We know this image also as the escape-goat, and the Substitute King: someone chosen for the occasion to be the victim of the moment for the salvation of the rest of the community. He gains immortal divinity, saves other humans, brings his Father into the scene, his followers name a Church after him and these same followers establish a narrative, a theology, and ethics based on principles of behavior which blocks humans from chasing after the external divinity and forces them to concentrate on discovering the mysteries of Nature, for after all Nature is made by the Father and the SAVIOR and the Spirit of their mutual LOVE. In this manner knowing the mysteries of Nature is in the end knowing God himself, the Creator. The room left for individuals to improve their spiritual knowledge in this scheme of Savior/sinner, is not great, we are after all sinners, born in sin, and our individual salvation is only a gift, provided we follow the rules of ethics, and not the result of any superior knowledge of God or deviation from this scheme. Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the followers and founders of the model. God and the rules of ethics come from the outside and their mission in life is to bring all humans to surrender to this model, either through conversion or force. The individual, in this model, is an individual only in name for after all individual perfection consists in total surrender to the model, in letting the model become embodied in the subjects in such a way that the model, rather than the individuals, acts through each complying individual. Unfortunately this model, being based primarily on the left hemisphere of the neocortex, has overriding power over all the other brains and thus it becomes reductionist in the individual, and discriminatory and imperialistic against other brains and cultures. Wherever there is violence the Savior model is at work.
The Avatara model, on the other hand, is earlier than the Savior’s. It dates from the times of the oral/audial Rig Veda (5.000 to 2.5000 B.C.) It has a larger range of human development than the Savior’s, from the Language of possibilities of the Asat (Chaos) where all geometries of possible human forms are waiting to be born as heroes, gods, humans etc. to the Language of Sacrifice and Images, where all forms are to be sacrificed so that one does not cancel out the others, be they gods, magicians, or humans. The gods are this side of creation and they are interior embodiments of a multiplicity of brains at work. Inner acts, rather than names are at work. These acts are so efficient that they may create new “gods”, new centers of action, to guide humans to make wide decisions. There are no a priori norms of ethics to accommodate to, no initial or terminal spaces to come or go to, where souls are sent to rest eternally. Life is a flow, a continuous movement we each follow, from the continuity we come from, to the discontinuity we are born into, and back to the continuity waiting. This continuity may be also recovered while in this world of discontinuity in states like Moksha or Nirvana, as total liberation from the discontinuous. The model of the Avatara in its entirerety is not seen clearly in earlier Classical Texts of India until the Bhagavad Gita, where the life of a nation is dependent on the decision taken by one single individual.
The Roots of Liberalism: The Method of Division. Back to the Battlefield.
In order to open up to the above models we have to return to the battle field, to the sciences that give us knowledge.
Modern sciences – as much so as ordinary life and politics – make their claims according to a method of division that grounds those claims. From Aristotle, who summarized for us the claims of the Sophists, to the contemporary political scene, representation is a method of division that sorts out external objects according to the specifications of a classification extending from the highest genera to the lowest species. Christianity – theology and philosophy – followed the same foundational representation, postulating Being as that which exists both beyond the highest genera and within the particularity of the lowest species. The eccentric, the different and the divergent were left out of the account – and we continue this practice – attempting, in the name of the essential reality of this particular world of “knowing,” to convince others of its superior truth. This foundational presupposition takes for granted a method of reaching reality that starts from an external world already formed, reorganizes, rearranges, or redistributes the attributes of this world by means of abstraction, mathematical logic, and general principles of thought that are a-historical and outside of individual biological systems.
What defines this tradition is its obsession with definition, principles of thought, exteriority, and its continual need to reach higher and higher levels of abstraction where at last global conformity to a few intellectual acts will produce a uniform vision of universal egalitarianism. This is the theme our culture has witnessed from the stage of myth (equality before God) to the stage of ideology (equality among men) to the stage of “scientific” affirmation (equality as scientific fact): Christianity, democracy, socialism, and Marxism.
Affirmations to the contrary by Christianity may be countered by declaring that the Christianity we know about and the one that has dictated social policies is the official Christianity of the Inquisition, which the inquisitions of contemporary social sciences resemble. We may also point out that the Christianity of the mystics and the communities they founded was marginal to mainstream Christianity and was never taken up by the official Church as a model of social action. Hierarchies were established externally through men, or internally through faculties in such a way that the dismantling of those hierarchies led to confusion and to a leveling of the faculties. What started, for example, as a hierarchy of faculties, with thinking at the top and imagination, fantasy, and opinions below, ended up with simply having thoughts in whatever order they happened to be offered from the outside. Modern egalitarianism with its demand that the State interfere and serve the right of the people to be equal does not have as a model the monastic egalitarianism of the mystic brotherhood. It rather resembles the egalitarianism achieved in a prison or a brothel. In neurobiological language the “interpreter module” of the left hemisphere of the neocortex has taken over with its passion for words with no context, content or knowledge beyond the word, and thus, at last, the word has become flesh.
The Foundation of Conservatism and Neoconservatism.
From the foregoing, it is easy to see why there is need to separate modern conservatism from classical conservatism. Classical conservatism undertook to protect institutions and methods not worth conserving. The neoconservative today is concerned with something deeper and more enduring than that which traditional conservatism stood for. We have now to deal with the very roots of humankind and the possibilities of its continuity and renovation. We have to deal with roots that are not only socially founded but also biological – inner mechanisms that determine the continuity of the race.
Prior to the method of division Aristotle exemplified, there was another culturally verifiable form of division that Plato in his dialogues proposed as the project of philosophy for the organization and foundation of the Polity. This form of division is to be sought not through the application of cognitive and fictive skills, which yield only a shadow of knowledge, but through the direction of a will trained to select, to sort out among the possible – lives, narratives, acts – what is best. This form of division focuses exclusively on the quality of the acts performed, on the selection of things from images of originals from copies, and of good copies from simulacra. Claims are judged internally as they fit a lineage of performance that separates the pure from the impure, the authentic. This Platonic method of division is not primarily concerned with breath in the determination of the species from a genus but with depth in the selection of the lineage of the act performed so as to sort out claims, to distinguish the true claimant from the false, the bad life from the good, the good narrative from the bad one. Decisions, if they are good, will produce good visible forms; the quality of the form is a measure of the quality of an inner act.
In this philosophical distinction lies also that which separates conservatives from neoconservatives, theologians from mystics, scientists from scientism. The conservative had taken the visible form of institutions, class, privilege, and power as models of the conservative affirmation. The neoconservative aims at the invisible act that creates the visible form, institution, and model. This invisible act is also the measure of the visible form, the hierarchy of values, and the worth of the members of society. The visible form is the measure of the invisible act. If the visible form is good, then the act that formed it is good – though the converse does not hold. According to Plato’s criteria, the poet Homer was bad for the Polity; he formed no community, degraded the gods, and depicted them as imitators of men and women. Pythagoras was good; he formed communities that encouraged virtue and the quest for truth through the proper understanding of numbers.
Under this division, the quality of inner invisible acts performed creates a social category of inequality. The highest imaginative acts form the top of the hierarchy, below which cognition, imitation, and opinions fall. The acts – their quality – produce the ability to judge and chose the best from among the possible. It is as a consequence of these acts that communities are formed, not global abstract societies. The community mediates the temptations of individual greed and universal manipulation. Education and the cultivation of habits of virtue guarantee a society that lives for itself rather than aiming too high or too low.
The classical mind is situated in this middle region where, as Plato held, “gods and humans have intercourse.” It is a middle region where acts performed unite communities in a quality recognizable by all the members. The quality of the acts implies, as Plato also held, that ideals exist. The possibility of seeking truth and justice depends, in Plato’s analogy, upon the prior existence of ideals. The eida are approached through spiritual exercises performed in the building of cities through music, or tuning the soul through musical modulation, as in books 8, 9, and 10 of the Republic. The quality of the inner act is the criterion of selectivity that needs to be applied to all claims. The mystical is the ground of the philosophical. The philosophical has to deal with the separation of origins from principles and with the selection of foundation, the object of claims and claimant – in Platonic terms, the unshared, the shared, and the sharer (the father, the mother, the off-spring).
Plato’s project of philosophy for the health of the Polity is primarily concerned with inner acts that take as primary their relation to Sameness and Similarity, to an original invisible act that gives birth to perfect forms. These inner acts make the invisible visible, and their quality is determined by their proximity to the original. The highest performance is the fitting of the soul to the Good production of good icons, and the lowest is the presence and repetition of simulacra. The simulacra are not only bad images; they are worse than bad images, for they deny the need and existence of original image or models. For Plato, the primary political exercise is that of turning the dead into a source of recreation of that act that created communities in the first place. From the text of the dead, the acts of creation are renewed in the living so that history may continue. As humans, we are neuro-physiologically linked to a common enterprise: not to those goods we produce and discard. This “fitting” is the primary training for the life of the Polity. Remembering texts in the present is simultaneously the building of history. Philosophically, one does not need to be a transcendentalist to be attuned to the prophetic voices of the afterlife and of the realm of ideals.
The quest for an appropriate approximation of the ideal has created difficulties. It has populated the earth with a trail of victims. For a copy to be like the original, that is, well grounded in an identity of acts, the copy must retain both the image and the likeness of the original. In the Sophist, Plato distinguishes between iconic copies (likeness) and phantasmic simulacra (semblances) (Sophist 236b-264c). Icons are good images; they are endowed with resemblance – that is, relations and proportions (as in a musical model) that constitute inner performance. The simulacrum on the other hand, is not just a copy of a copy, a degraded icon; it is rather an image without a semblance, without resemblance. It is a fallen angel, a fallen creature that retains the image of God while losing the resemblance. This is the state of sin of liberalism. The simulacrum includes within itself the power to cover and exclude all originality, all history, by forming those constructions that include within them the angle of the observer. It has interiorized a dissimilitude. This dissimilitude, this blind center, this des-centered perspective, this point of view occupied by the observer is the true flight from the original image; it is a process of progression towards the unbound, a gradual subversion of history, an avoidance of the limit, of the Same and the Like. It is also a negation of both original and copies, model and reproduction; it is the birth of simulation, of the inauthentic, providing no criterion for repudiating the false claimant.
As a result, the modern liberal soul has lost faith even in its own liberal narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Skepticism about narratives is now universal. With this skepticism, the contemporary modern and post-modern individual is sensitized only to perpetual change. Thus his ability to sustain the incommensurable is reinforced. We have reached the center of individual madness and the failure of global narratives. The neoconservative affirmation could the only mediating ground for communities left for the contemporary age.
Political wars, however, are not won by truth alone nor by those with the best arguments. Winning wars requires a determined will to carry out a program under the most clear, not unclear, visions. Thus the first task of any political movement is to keep the vision alive – a vision of which Tennyson in Camelot said with reference to Plato’s cities: “[T]he city is built to music, therefore never built at all. And therefore built forever.” We must stop the pretense that truth is best expressed in concepts. The truth of visions may be captured only in images, for it is always against the wall of an image that all concepts rebound. Foundations cannot be expressed, made, rebuilt, and recreated only in concepts. Only the simulacra can. The quality of the act by which the images of origin are kept alive is the guarantee of the survival of a community, religious, civil, or political.
Neither Plato’s nor Pythagoras’ program of ethics and training has found a home in Western life. In this, there is still hope the West will reconsider and change its education and embodiment programs in education. By then, hopefully, the West will realize that both Plato and Pythagoras are footnotes to the earlier cultures of India, as in the Katha Upanishad, Rg Veda etc. Indic texts had already marked the individual training and ethics of social life. Nothing short of excellence will do. The training for excellence is to practice the embodied technologies of decision-making, the right decisions, the wise decisions, when needed by the present dharma, context, one faces.This is the goal, the ethics of the whole program of the Avatara Krisna in the Bhagavad Gita: to train Arjuna, that fallen and disturbed warrior, to make decisions, the best ones, as needed by his present dharma (his present situation), a battle field. And this is the program of human acting, from the Rig Veda down, that Indic texts propose: an ethics of decision making as opposed to an ethics of compliance to rules coming from the outside. There is no outside god able to make these pronouncements in Indic texts; here all the gods are this side of creation, as the Rig Veda proclaims.
Decision-making is a must-ethics in a world that is so ambiguous. Our educational system is biased in favor of veridical decisions, decisions geared to agreements between subject and object, logical platitudes, “finding the truth.” For this kind of decision no neural development is necessary, no frontal lobes need to open, the rules are in the game. But there are no mechanisms in education to teach anyone decision based on multiple ambiguous situations, self-centered decisions, “what is best from among the possible” in the concrete situation facing the subject. For these kinds of decisions new technologies need to be embodied by a subject and also by the guide, guru, spiritual director that supervises the spiritual development of the subject. This is the lesson of Indic texts. Arjuna in the Gita collapses in the first chapter unable to make the decision to fight in a very ambiguous -to him-situation. Family, friends, are on both sides of the battle field. Krsna takes him on a journey of communities and acts ( yogas) he was familiar with for ten chapters until his whole organism opens and is able to see (chapter eleven) the geometries on which the passage and dissolution of nama-rupa,names and forms, takes place. This is the embodiment of the Avatara in its full manifestation. A man has been able to embody in one life time the technologies of the present culture to the point of having it constantly present so that when called upon he may make the best decision, from among the possible, for the benefit of all. It is after the realization that the Gita, in chapter twelve, spells out the meaning of the “battle field” as the human body, and of the technologies of decision-making, as the opening of memory, that opens the heart, and open finally the frontal lobes so that in the end the subject, Arjuna, may by habit decide from the desires of his heart whatever he wants: yatha icchasi tatha kuru (now that you know do as you wish).
These teachings should not be foreign to Western readers. Christianity has had several groups of dedicated individuals repeating this teaching, in almost secret, under the guise of Spiritual Exercises, by mystics like Ignatius de Loyola, John of the Cross, Teresa de Avila to name a few. These were people who practiced in silence the technologies of decision-making but spoke in public the language of theology so that the Inquisition would not destroy them and their followers. But before these Western mystics came into the scene, Plato and Pythagoras had already proposed a similar practice and before them Indic Classical texts had already imprinted in the species the ability to practice “virtue by habit”, i.e., the ability to make decisions in ambiguous situations. And it is these technologies that need to be revived again now that the ambiguity of the world is so pronounced as to be almost impossible to capture through truth-decisions that do not need training or education.
What we need then is a program of education that will fit the young to the sense of the Good, regardless of its ambiguity, or just because of it. The continuity of the quality of inner acts is not only in Indic Texts, but also in the Western Tradition, either through Plato’s Dialogues or the mystic’s spiritual exercises, and therefore, already imprinted in our neurobiological inheritance.
We need a program of selection that will attend exclusively to the ability of performance of those acts able to lead a community to perform the same kind of acts that are most beneficial for all. But mostly we need to train the communities we face to be able to recognize quality, as the only criterion by which certain acts are chosen over others.
However, none of this will be possible if first we do not change, through education, our habits of embodiment and move from the Aristotelian embodiment of simulacra to the Platonic-Indic embodiment of the technologies of decision-making in an ambiguous world. This task might be beyond the possibility of many older brains (the windows of malleability are inexorably closed) and, therefore, our energies should be geared towards the training of the young, the next generation, for their neural passages are still malleable and capable of inner technological embodiments.
Let the quality of inner acts be our guide.
For a more complete development of these points see:
(1986) de Nicolas, Antonio T. Powers of Imagining: Ignatius de Loyola. SUNY Press, Albany, N.Y.
(1989 and 96) de Nicolas, Antonio T. St. John of the Cross, Samuel Weiser Inc. York Beach, Maine.
(2002) Goldberg, Elkhonon, The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Critical Mind. Oxford University Press. New York
Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty-seven books, including Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St. John of the Cross.
A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most recently, in his own poetry.
His books of poetry: Remembering the God to Come, The Sea Tug Elegies, Of Angels and Women, Mostly, and Moksha Smith: Agni’s Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following insights:
from, Choice: “…these poems could not have been produced by a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a skill, a mission…unlike the critico-prosaic American norm…”
from The Baltimore Sun: “Steeped as they are in mythology and philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet. He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives…his poems …show us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless”
from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: ” This is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra.”
Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research Institute, located in Florida.