3.18.2009

Axioms Universal

SO when I said I'd talk about the Federalist Papers as a religious document, I hope ya'll understood I would be using a loose definition of "religion." My definition sounded like this: "religion" consists of metaphysical assumptions and ethical convictions, regardless of their source. Here's an interesting place to start:
This is one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal; the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained. (Federalist No. 23, Hamilton)

My recent fascination with Parmenides' notion of "Oneness" has made it clearer and clearer to me that this tension in the pre-Socratic period was anything but idle talk. It was an ontological claim concerning the nature of reality and simultaneously a social claim about the nature of civilization. Allow me to leap around one little bit more to make my point...

In Harriet Jacobs' autobiographical slave narrative, the narrating voice poses the problem this way:
My mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word: "Thou shalt love they neighbor as theyself." "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them." But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.

In few words, Jacobs calls into relief the important question of where and how wide we draw the circle of our sympathy. The only "metaphysical assumption" and the only "ethical conviction" that will satisfy the conscience in response to this question is, of course, to expand our sympathies without end -- we know that anything short of unifying the world under our sympathy is less than enough.

The other day I argued that no separation (between "religion" and "politics") was possible. Today I'm suggesting that clear separation is not only possible, but advisable. My thinking is that although our theoretical response to Jacobs' implicit question is something like Love, Love, Love, our actions speak louder. As soon as we refuse to perceive the Oneness of reality -- that is, as soon as we are not wholly motivated by our religious convictions -- we are wholly in the world of politics. It's hard to state this clear enough; to put it in narrative terms: once we step with one toe out of the garden of Eden, we are wholly, altogether out.

This is why the separation between politics and religion seems possible and necessary. There's an odd result, though: if I say that I believe (I do indeed!) that a time will come when the religious sentiment guides all people entirely, I sound somewhere between crazy and annoying. But for some reason, the corresponding thinking of Alexander Hamilton, his allusion to an all-encompassing political order, does not sound (to the modern American ear) nearly as outrageous:
The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. If inequalities should arise in some States from duties on particular objects, these will, in all probability, be counterbalanced by proportional inequalities in other States, from the duties on other objects. In the course of time and thing, an equilibrium, as far as it is attainable in so complicated a subject, will be established everywhere.

Hamilton's version of end-time thinking will sound to the contemporary American ear far less metaphysical than it actually is because being American means trusting in Hamilton's mystico-magico-political revelation. But is it? We're certainly still waiting for Hamilton's equilibrium to arrive... while we're waiting, why not just name it "Elijah?"

So, is the idea of political progress less "religious" than the idea of "the kingdom of heaven?" I am not arguing against separation -- I'm (now) arguing for it: if people are better able to believe in the idea of "political progess" than they are in the "kingdom of heaven," so be it. Draw the distinction clearer in hopes of emphasizing how wise we in the "political progress" camp are in comparison to the dim souls in the "kingdom of heaven" camp. But as I've hinted before so many times: it's the belief that counts -- not the object of belief. The Obama administration is exactly right: we're living through a crisis of confidence. Will the idea of political progress keep itself together enough to gather our trust once again? I don't see why not; we're a resilient bunch.

2 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Nice definition of religion--I might introduce hints of a causal relationship there: "how metaphysical assumptions contribute to ethical convictions." But, then again, I can't seem to every break free from the questions of origin.

Your concluding question brings me back to Burke, Corder, and company: thinking about our lives narratologically (we are the stories we tell).

Casey said...

Unless we are the teller...