Bertrand de Jouvenel, conservatism, Four Noble Truths, Front Porch Republic, intimacy/integrity, modernity, Pali suttas, Patrick Deneen, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha), Thomas P. Kasulis, Yoga Sūtras
Patrick Deneen had an eloquent piece up this week at Front Porch Republic, a speech given at a student retreat held by the Tocqueville Forum. This speech is emblematic of many popular conservative (and I mean literal conservative) ideas, with implications that go wider than mere politics.
Deneen’s speech is a “defence of culture.” Following one Romano Guardini, Deneen understands culture in a specific sense that ties it essentially to nature, history and society. Culture thus defined is a tradition of interacting with nature and other humans, suspicious of change, deferring to the past and ready to pass it on to future generations. When defined this way, Deneen says, the enemy of culture is liberalism, the contemporary politics of individual choice and freedom at a great remove from nature, history and society. (In this sense, most of the libertarian American Tea Partiers are consummate liberals; liberalism is generally the ideology of both the modern left and the modern right.) Liberalism, Deneen says, endorses an “anti-culture,” or at least monoculture, in which the priority of individual over collective goods is everywhere enshrined. The particular kind of collective goods Deneen has in mind, I think, have above all to do with raising a family – for example, the ability to raise one’s children in an environment that is not thoroughly sexualized by scantily-clad magazine covers, Lady Gaga, Internet pornography and Bratz dolls. (The example is mine, but it’s true to Deneen’s position as I understand it.) Perhaps the most telling line in the piece, and the one that inspired me to write this entry, is this quote from Bertrand de Jouvenel: the political philosophers of liberalism are “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.”
I find Deneen’s definition of culture strange, but I won’t dwell on that point. I’m more interested in the essay because of the way it cogently expresses the critique of liberalism, as made by a literal conservatism rooted in nature and family. And I think there’s something missing from this analysis, something put in acute focus by a knowledge of South Asian traditions.
For liberalism, I submit, is not the only tradition that opposes “culture” in Deneen’s sense, wishes to free human beings against the bonds of nature and family. Rather, Indian “renouncer” traditions have been engaged in this project for hundreds of years. The Buddhist First Noble Truth, that all the conditioned things around us in the world are suffering, is relatively well known. But plenty of his non-Buddhist contemporaries said something very much like it. Classical Jain tradition, as expressed in the Tattvārtha Sūtra, aims to free the human subject from the material world and its bonds, into a liberated state called kaivalya (aloneness) – as do the Yoga Sūtras, often considered “Hindu.” One might hesitate to refer to early Buddhism as individualist, since it so readily deconstructs the self, but the same cannot be said about these other traditions – which, in some form in another, also survive to this day in India and its diaspora.
And these different Indian traditions find their social expression in monkhood – a deliberate rejection of family. Their thinkers and theorists are childless men by choice; it is not that they have forgotten their childhood, so much as they wish to transcend it. The fact of our past childhood should not be denied, but it should also not weigh down on our transcendent futures.
Now such traditions are of course far removed from the modern liberalism Deneen criticizes. Monks, more or less by definition, don’t have sex. To Jains and Buddhists and yogins, sex and related worldly pleasures are among the worst of the fetters that bind us to the world of suffering – to society and history and nature. Deneen’s conservative traditionalism has important commonalities with the Indian renouncers, most obviously a suspicion of open, or permissive, sexuality. And yet the renouncers share a great deal with liberal modernity that they do not share with the family-oriented culture embraced by Deneen. I tried to get at this point when I identified asceticism, libertinism and traditionalism as three distinct ways of life, but since then I’ve come back to thinking that the point is best expressed in Thomas Kasulis’s distinction between intimacy and integrity worldviews: modern liberalism’s integrity orientation is shared by the classical Indian renouncers.
More germane to Deneen’s points about culture, these renouncers also share modernity’s universalism. For the Jains or early Buddhists there would be no problem if everyone around the world adopted a common Jain or Buddhist culture, aimed at the renunciation of suffering. While Christians and Muslims would often believe a similar thing, their universalism is still self-consciously and essentially tied to particular historical events in a way that Buddhism, like modern liberalism, is not. Thus to the extent that Buddhists care about the “authenticity” of Buddhist teachings, it is only because the historical Buddha happened to be the only awakened one in our era.
Yet nevertheless Buddhists do look back to the Buddha’s teachings. The past great thinker is still treated as worthy of reverence. And this much, Buddhists do share with Deneen’s traditionalists, against modernity. For Deneen, if we look to the future as a place to be liberated from the past – as our increasingly science- and technology-focused education systems effectively do – we will lose something of the greatest human importance, our best guides to living well.
And on this score, if little else, I agree with Deneen. I have learned far more about living well from the Buddha and Lucretius and Aristotle than I have from contemporary philosophy or even psychology. At the same time, I do have one foot firmly planted in the universalist and individualist world of modern liberalism, to the point of not intending to have children. I suppose this all makes for a key reason Buddhism continues to hold such appeal for me: it allows us to return to the past for guidance, and yet in an individualistic way that does not bind us too closely to nature and society. (Stoicism and Epicureanism do the same things, in a way, but they have lost Buddhism’s continuity to the present day.)
No doubt Deneen and his colleagues would criticize such a view as shallow, an attempt to have one’s historical cake and eat it too. There’s a lot to such a view, and developing a critique of it would take far more than this one post. But I will start by saying that attempts at synthesis do not have to be shallow. Traditions change, develop and grow as they encounter each other – and such encounters are happening today to an unprecedented degree.
Interesting post, Amod. But how do you fit in the Buddhist concept of lineage in equating Buddhism with individualism and an anti-cultural viewpoint?
The concept of lineage is important to Buddhism precisely because the authentic transmission of the Buddha’s teaching is of such importance. It is jarring to think of a Tibetan Buddhist prostrating to a visualization of a lineage tree or a Zen Buddhist tenzo preparing food in the way specified 500 years ago in his lineage as being individualists unconcerned with preservation of culture. The key with Buddhist culture is that it is transmitted like a recipe for making bread. You don’t pass the moldy bread from one generation to the next — you pass the recipe and then individuals make the bread fresh. In that sense, it is an individual effort.
But I think the your equating Buddhism with individualism may be influenced by Western Buddhism — where the culture is still shallow and there is a lot of do-it-yourself thinking going on.
How does one speak of “individualism” in the context of a “philosophy” which denies individuality or dismisses it as an “illusion”?
Thill, you can talk about individualism or “I” or “ego” in a religion that views “self” as a projection without intrinsic reality — in the same way that you can discuss “path” in the context of a religion that views enlightenment as something that is discovered and not created or achieved.
Without confusion there would be no Buddhism.
“Individualism” assumes the reality of individuals. The term “reality” here in individualism is not some strange code for “interdependence” or “emptiness”. It means individuals truly exist, have a basic common nature, and an identity and continuity in space and time. They possess rights and duties, etc. None of this is consistent with the denial of the reality of the self or individual, the denial of their identity and continuity in time, denials which are “intrinsic” to Buddhism.
JW: “Without confusion there would be no Buddhism.”
Actually, without Buddhism there would be no confusion.
No, No, JW’s statement “Without confusion there would be no Buddhism.” can stand with one modification. We need only to insert “its” after “without”.
It would then read: “Without its confusion there would be no Buddhism.”
“The concept of lineage is important to Buddhism precisely because the authentic transmission of the Buddha’s teaching is of such importance.”
How do you determine what were the authentic teachings of Gotama? And, assuming that this difficult question can be answered satisfactorily, what counts as “authentic transmission” of those teachings? Is an “authentic transmission” one which merely repeats those teachings?
Amod Lele said:
Jim, my point was that (South Asian) Buddhists reverence the past not for its own sake, but for the sake of individuals and their liberation. That liberation is not accomplished communally; one person (even if viewed as an assemblage of aggregates rather than a full entity) gets liberated at a time. The idea of a lineage is important only because our era had only one liberated being, so the connection to him is important; but theoretically it would be possible that someone else could get liberated in our era, just very unlikely. If one could somehow encounter that being (or become that being, perhaps as a pratyekabuddha), lineages would no longer matter.
Amod, on this point, I am fascinated by the traditional Eastern and Western approaches to transmission of culture.
An example in the West might be Chartres Cathedral, a monumental undertaking and architectural achievement that took 57 years to build and that has been preserved and has served as a place of religious worship for 800 years.
In contrast to that, you have the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan. Also a striking architectural achievement, it is rebuilt every 20 years to exact specifications and then the old shrine is destroyed.
The Western approach is based on a religion that has permanence (god) at it’s center — and the cultural form embodies that. The human culture is transmitted though religious ceremony and practice within a context of a sheltering, stable sense of “other”.
In the East, religion has change and impermanence at its center, the cultural form embodies that, and the culture is transmitted through a human lineage of priests that has passed along the knowledge of how to build the Grand Shrine for 1,220 years.
“The concept of lineage is important to Buddhism precisely because the authentic transmission of the Buddha’s teaching is of such importance.”
How do you determine the authentic teachings of Gotama in the first place? What counts as “authentic transmission” of those teachings, assuming the earlier difficult question can be answered satisfactorily? What about the role of translation, interpretation, improvisation, and even dissent in the process of transmission?
Since Buddhism is not a “dead” religion or a text based belief system, authentic transmission seems to me to be demonstrated by the quality of students in each generation attaining realization. That sounds like a big deal — and it is — but basically it means the the extent to which students become calmer, more compassionate and less self-centered.
In the Tibetan culture, there is a concept of both kama and terma lineages. Kama lineages are historical lineages dating to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Terma lineages or treasure lineages, on the other hand, are direct lineages created in modern times through realized teachers or tertons who discover teachings from earlier lineage teachers. In Tibet, terma lineages are the most highly valued because of the concerns that you refer to — the risk of corruption or mistranslation in longer kama lineages. Terma lineages are considered shorter and more direct.
Terma is not a concept that is easy to accept for most Western scholars and students. For myself, I relate to it based on my confidence in the qualities of the teachers presenting these teachings and in the proven efficacy of these teachings in practice.
“Culture thus defined is a tradition of interacting with nature and other humans, suspicious of change, deferring to the past and ready to pass it on to future generations.”
Deneen has started with a biased, one-sided, and persuasive definition of culture! Culture includes both deference to the past and dissent and departure from it! This applies to all the traditions constitutive of culture. Even the tradition of conservatism is not without its share of variations, departures, and dissents!
michael reidy said:
Your reading of the Eastern tradition in relation to the Hindu would seem to me at least to be a little awry. Classically you have to pass through the four stages of life to get to the point of being a sanyasin. That is the ideal, you could call it a sort of successive surpassing of lived through constellations of duties. The dharma of sex is good mutually satisfying sex that is fruitful. One notices the ideal of having a son in order to carry out the traditional funeral rites. Deciding to remain childless in the married state would be regarded as perhaps adharmic. For Guardini and Deneen it would be the result of a disordered conscience.
Reading Deneen is a curious experience. I see him peeping through the lace curtain as a come lately insider deploring the latest redaction of the American way. Embedded in his tendentious and ambiguous speech writers eloquence is a denial of the fact that seems patent to an outsider. America has hardly been in existence for a wet week and the constant influx of new migrants keeps the pot boiling merrily. The reduction of the new crude ore to pure American gold takes a generation or two and the hyphenated ethnic groups may feel that those volatile essences that were boiled off contained something precious.
Amod Lele said:
Well, the four-stages model is a relatively late development, ushered in by familially oriented brahmins as a way of incorporating (and perhaps therefore subverting) the kinds of renouncer traditions I’m referring to here. You certainly won’t find it in the Yoga Sūtras. Patrick Olivelle’s The Āśrama System is a fascinating read on the development of the idea of four stages.
I’m too late to add substantively to this conversation but wanted to throw into the digital record a point dovetailing w/ Michael’s– namely, that Indian culture at large had a cultural place for its renouncers. This seems to me (as it has to many) roughly analogous to the place of monasticism in Medieval Christianity (I’m willing to grant that the earliest forms of ermetism in, say, the Desert Fathers is a more stark critique of culture). Part of the difference is that ancient India had the forest. Australia has the outback. But Europe had to invent somewhat artificial enclosures (what we’d probably call “retreat centers”) for monks to step out. In Mt. Athos this still happens. Of course the rhythm and exchange between the cultural margin and center has its own dynamic, and is subject to being co-opted; one could certainly offer a critique of monasticism along these lines. But the point is that it is possible, at least, for a culture to have a place for those who renounce it, or at least radically contextualize it– a place that, moreover, does not have to be complicit in every values of the culture (the way so much criticism of consumer capitalism, say, is commodified into just more consumption.)