I’m sometimes curious about the resolutely political nature of modern secular thought – self-proclaimed humanists tend to see political activism as an intrinsic part of their belief system, along with a refusal to believe in the supernatural. So too, in Yavanayāna Buddhism, a skepticism toward the supernatural tends to go hand in hand with political engagement.
The same is true at most Unitarian Universalist churches. I attended a UU church for two years, but this is among the major reasons I stopped going. The UU church appealed to me because it seemed open to seekers with a wide range of values; nevertheless, there are some values that typical UUs do share, among them a commitment to political activism for social justice as a central part of a good life. That’s something I’m skeptical of, at the least. And so while I found a great community there and made some lasting friendships, I ultimately found myself far out of sync spiritually with the church’s ethos.
To me, perhaps the most curious example of the close connection between politics and non-supernaturalism is Robert Hanrott‘s now-defunct Epicurus Blog. Hanrott claimed to devote the blog to the Epicurean philosophy of “moderation, enjoyment of life, tranquillity, friendship, lack of fear,” along with Epicurus’s rejection of gods and other supernatural forms of causation. Hanrott explicitly acknowledged that “those who try to follow Epicurus and his teachings are not supposed to involve themselves in politics.” And yet the majority of the posts on his Epicurus Blog wound up being about… politics. Often he talked about how “Epicurus would approve” (or disapprove) of current political claims or programs, even though he knows Epicurus disclaimed any involvement in politics. He defended the blog’s political orientation by saying “But if the greatest objective in life is happiness, peace of mind, tranquility and freedom from fear and anxiety, then one would prefer a government that offered policies that helped it all along.” While that may technically be true, it doesn’t imply that one should care a great deal about that government and its workings. Hanrott, it seems to me, went directly against his philosophical mentor’s teachings by being concerned so heavily with politics – rather than on, say, exercises to make oneself happier, of the sort found at Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project. But it’s not such a great surprise that Hanrott did this; his ethos is entirely of a piece with humanists, UUs and Engaged Buddhists.
The question I ponder is: why does this happen? I lean myself toward a strong supernatural skepticism but against strong political engagement. The philosophers who are most notable for such an orientation are the classical Epicureans, which is why it startles me that the most explicitly Epicurean blog went in such a different direction. But then classical Epicureanism never got a great foothold in the first place; I don’t know of any really enduring traditions that have been neither supernatural nor political in their orientation.
Simone Weil’s La pésanteur et la grace (Gravity and Grace) offers a potential explanation, one that takes us back to the last two posts. Weil says (my translation): “Atheist materialism is necessarily revolutionary, because to orient oneself toward an absolute good down here, one must place it in the future.” As I understand it, Weil means that human beings necessarily seek some sort of perfection, some “absolute good.” If our spiritual aim is merely for the better and not the best, it is dour, washed out, unmotivating. If we no longer have a heaven, an other-worldly nirvana, or a future rebirth into perfect buddhahood to aim for, then the only absolute good available to us is a future worldly utopia, a political realm that will transcends the manifest imperfection of the political world as it is now.
Is Weil right? I don’t think I feel the kind of imperative that Weil seems to identify – I think we’re better off accepting the world’s imperfection, just trying to minimize suffering without eliminating it. But am I deluding myself? Am I going to always wind up craving some sort of unfulfilled perfection, in this world or in a world beyond?