Even if one accepts Śāntideva’s idea that political participation is harmful to a good life, that doesn’t mean that one must be finished with political thought. For there’s another key way that politics enters into reflection: as analogy. The politician has often appeared in ethical texts as a figure for the individual; we learn what is good or bad in a single human life by examining what is good or bad for a king or a state.
The most famous use of this analogy between individual and state is likely in Plato’s Republic. In Book II, Socrates reminds Glaucon that one can typically see bigger things more clearly than smaller things. Similarly it is easier to observe justice in a state than in an individual, so we should first ask what justice is in a state, and then we will be more able to see what it is in an individual. The city or state is larger than the individual; “perhaps, then, there is more justice in the larger thing, and it will be easier to learn what it is.” (368)
Plato’s approach, of using the state to illuminate the individual, is not obvious or natural; it was not taken by the Confucians, as far as I can tell. Confucius in Analects I.2 says that those who behave well toward their parents don’t start revolutions; Mencius argues for benevolence over profit by arguing that a state of benevolent people will flourish. Here – not so surprising given the early Confucians’ social context – the point seems to be to figure out how to run a state, and individual conduct is addressed for its relevance to that goal, rather than the other way ’round.
But one can find a similar approach to Plato’s in a more surprising place, where it plays a different role: the work of the Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti (whom I also discussed last time). In his commentary on Āryadeva‘s Four Hundred – now translated into English as Four Illusions – Candrakīrti also spends a chapter inquiring about how a king might best run a state. His rationale for doing so, however, is telling when compared to Plato’s: “Since the king certainly has egotism and selfishness in abundance, primarily the king is advised about their removal.”
At a theoretical or epistemological level, or in terms of their literary style and method, there is not so great a difference between Plato and Candrakīrti here. Both decide to study the state or the king because this object of study is in some respect bigger than the ordinary individual, and therefore clearer, easier to see. But where Plato sees more justice in the city than in the individual – a good thing, overall – Candrakīrti sees more egotism. The egotistical king is cited as an example of what is worst in us. Plato gives us an abstracted (and idealized) city-state to show us what is good; Candrakīrti gives us an abstracted king to show us what is bad.
With this difference, I think, we see Buddhist anti-politics once again. Candrakīrti is far less hostile to politics than Śāntideva; he doesn’t ever say that the king should give his kingdom away. Still, his advice to the king is chiding, cautionary: do not punish harshly, do not sacrifice your life in battle, and above all, never feel proud or self-satisfied about your status as a king. (Compare how Mencius always returns to the ancient emperors Yao and Shun and how great they were; for him, their pride would have been appropriate.) And so, while the literary function of politics for Candrakīrti and Plato is the same, the value they attach to it is opposed. For Plato, an idealized city-state shows us the heights of good to which we can inspire; for Candrakīrti, a king shows us the depths to which we can sink.