Sunday, 30 November 2014

For Discussion - Ten Preliminary Propositions for Living Decently

I have never liked commandments, never accepted the claims of authority but only those of evidence-based persuasion or my own assessment of the situation but, given that we are unconsciously fixed in our social condition by commandments created in the Iron Age for an Iron Age order, what alternative suggestions might we have.

These ten suggestions are here for discussion only - not provided on high by a charismatic man with horns on his head but simply as attempts at creating codes of common decency to challenge those of inherited traditionalist oppression whether by Popes or Kings.

1. Your rights exist only to the degree that you respect the rights of others. Rights are for all or for none. Otherwise, a demand for rights is no more than a tool or a weapon in a struggle for power. The primary right is always the right to autonomy and self-determination. The good society merely attempts to give meaning to the equalisation for all of that primary right.

2. Live beyond inherited or socially given constructions of identity based on gender, sexual orientation, claimed ethnicity, social status or class. It is not that all are equal or can be made equal within the commonwealth but the first choice of who you are should be yours and not others. To accept a fixed identity that was not freely chosen by yourself with full information to hand is to oppress oneself.

3. A child is your responsibility if you make one. This means their health, their education and their happiness. If you bring a child into your household by whatever means or join a household with children, you take on this duty for them as if they were your own. This duty extends to the maintenance of the household with others with the same duty of care but it does not mean submission to them.You have not abandoned the primary right and can withdraw if your good will is abused.

4. No-one is a burden to society. Everyone is society whether they like it or not. This does not mean society cannot have some practical expectations - that it does not pay for the free rider or expect that each person does his or her utmost to be a strong and free agent - but the starting point is that a person cannot be bullied into freedom but only encouraged or even, in hard cases, managed into freedom.

5. No belief justifies violating the rights of others and if it does, then you are an enemy of the commonwealth. This applies to every organised religion, ideology or personal opinion. Since the primary right is the right to autonomy and self determination, all authoritarians are enemies of the people. This is not an argument against freely chosen traditionalism within a free society but it is an argument against imposing traditionalism on others - including and especially children.

6. Live life to the full on this earth but with sincerity in words, deeds and love against the unwarranted claims of others so that heaven is made potential, if rarely actual, in each day of a life lived fully. Expect nothing after death.

7. Try and avoid becoming part of the mass unless for brief communal pleasures. The theatre, the football match and the orgy are one thing, immersion into movements, belief systems and totalising communities are another. Neither peers nor the deciders of fashion can tell you who you are and your uniqueness is your greatest contribution to the social.

8. Defend yourself and your property but leave justice and punishment to the commonwealth. If the commonwealth is unjust, make sure you participate in making it just by giving a strong opinion and organising to remove injustice when it becomes intolerable. The magistrates rule by no right other than our agreement to their administration of justice and may be disposed of if they fail at any time. This right of resistance is absolute no matter what the forms or claims of the governing class - the question is only whether resistance can succeed or not against often superior forces.

9. If you cannot treat the social with respect even if it is weak or inadequate, walk away from it but don't despise it. It has its reasons and its purposes - to maintain order without which freedom cannot exist, to defend against predators and so on. To despise the social is to despise humanity - which is fine except that none of us can escape being human ... tragically perhaps but that is how it is.

10. Do everything you desire but harm no-one in doing it. There is no need to be over-protective of others at one's own expense but any strategy that constrains their self-creation or takes no account of their vulnerabilities as much as your self creation and vulnerabilities is an evil strategy. All relationships are constant negotiations between free individuals so society's interest is limited to creating the conditions for freedom and restoring balance when an evident oppression takes place. Let love drive us but a love beholden to science, reason and respect for the unconscious animal within us all.

You might class this as a conservative libertarianism with social-radical characteristics in the implicit call for active social intervention to equalise the primary right to autonomy and explicit acceptance of the right of resistance to incompetent and malicious authority.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Understanding Americans - Some Key Texts

The cultured English mind, until recently, could be defined as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan, the Romantic Poets, the English Novel and the War Poets with Kipling, Sherlock Holmes and HG Wells added to taste. But Americans are not Englishman. Although there is a common linguistic culture and both cultures are being transformed radically by the internet-driven shift from word to image, there is a cultural continuity in liberal America that outsiders need to understand before they accept or contest it.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
There are key texts that emerged from within American culture and took hold of the American imagination in a way that helped define this curious half-idealistic empire. Political texts such as the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address and general journalism and propaganda (which is the origin of the Federalist Papers) are taken as read. Similarly, we are speaking mostly of language although we include three films in our mini-canon.

Like all cultures, American culture is multi-faceted. Every generation produces its unique masterpieces and its defining forms but what we are interested in are the pivotal points where an entire culture shifts direction rather than sanctify some text which liberates or changes just a component of it. In that context, I suggest that there are three key phases in the formation of the American liberal mind which must be seen in the context both of official ideology (the political texts) and an equally important 'intellectual silence' from the conservative Right, seen as anti-intellectual by liberals but also representative of a small town and conservative culture of doing and believing.

The First Phase: The 1850s - Setting the Texts for the Cultural War Against The South

The surge of creative writing in this period (we must not forget the genre-creating work earlier of Poe) may now be seen as a concentrated revolt against puritan authority that was inherited from, but out of time with, English mores of 150 years previously - not in the direction of European materialism (Marx) and existentialism (Kierkegaard) but towards transcendentalism.

This is the point at which the Northern (but not the Southern) culture of the United States moves from being a dialectical variant of European culture into something new and distinctive. It is the point at which American idealism and commitment to absolute moral values turns from aspirational political theory into cultural reality.We may take the major texts, read in schools later, as these five:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Scarlet Letter (1850): Questions are raised about communitarian authority.
  • Herman Melville - Moby-Dick, or The Whale (1851): The intensity of questions of good and evil.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe - Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852): Sentimentalism in the cause of the good.
  • Henry David Thoreau - Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854): American individualism bonds with the land and with the ideal.
  • Walt Whitman - Leaves of Grass (1855): The poetic lauding of American earthiness

This immense flourishing of literature on the US East Coast in scarcely half a decade represented an America that was still an offshoot of British culture but that now asserted a distinctive urban liberal and democratic mentality that, in parts, and mostly unintended, helped to fuel the moral fervour behind a bloody war of conquest that was to be touted as a war of liberation after the fact.

This culture was later to invert itself somewhat into philosophical pragmatism as a result of horror at that war (as ably outlined by Louis Menand in 'The Metaphysical Club') and react against populist enthusiasm for moral absolutes but both the belief in force as agent of moral right and a measured antinomian belief in justice and rights over the forms of law has been a persistent value that drives American political action at home and overseas even today.

The Second Phase - From The Late Nineteenth Century to The Mid-Twentieth Century - Understanding & Reforming The Imperium

The first phase was a concentrated burst of generational energy based on an idealistic response to imposed authority from above. It ended in a brutal war that was pursued, albeit not always idealistically in practice, increasingly for 'moral' ends as it moved forward.

Henry James
The next phase is a coming to terms with the expansionary but increasingly anomic ever-expanding federal state that emerged from the crisis. It consisted of two  parts - a mainstream concern with American exceptionalism and how to make it moral, increasingly through a progressive discourse, and an attempt in relation to the South to include a still-alien culture in the whole.

Again, the critiques of capitalism in America are wholly unlike that in Europe. In Europe, there is a war against capitalism as a fundamental socially organising concept from both the Catholic or Fascist Right and the Socialist Left but, in the US, progressives are not arguing against capitalism but against 'bad' capitalism, against monopolies and for smallholders and the 'little man'. The attitude is more one of observation for reform than rage for revolution.

The texts to be read in schools today tell us that, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the US is not all that it could be in the eyes of thinking liberal men.

It is flawed but it is exceptional and it could be better by returning to its original intentions, the intentions, in a strange piece of patriarchal conservatism, of the Founding Fathers or the free-born settler. This is a liberalism that might be considered very conservative and nostalgic in Europe:

  • Henry James - Works (1871-1911): Anglo-American subtleties and differences
  • Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Fin (1884): A nostalgia for freedom
  • Frank Norris - The Octopus (1901): The progressive critique of big business
  • Sinclair Lewis - Main Street (1921): The dead weight of small town America
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby (1925): The corruption under the glitter
  • Norman Mailer - The Naked & The Dead (1948): Americans at war

The Southern Response

The 'Southern Response' is not so much a response by the South, which is a cultural back-water, but about the South. A choice is made in the early twentieth century not to integrate the black people who live there and in the Northern cities but to mythologise the culture romantically as a lost cause, a cavalier planter culture beaten (as they should have been even in Marxist theory) by kinder bourgeois roundheads. In doing so, the South is pickled in aspic in order to be integrated into Yankeedom while remaining segregated at home:

It is no accident that the process is book-ended by two major block-busting films. The first rewrites the civil war as a war of resistance on the lines of other doomed tales of resistance much loved by Anglo-Saxons - from Hereward the Wake onwards - and the second shows the romantic but wrong culture of the feudal South as ultimately ill-fitted to the modern world: 'frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!'

Distracted first by war and reconstruction, the nation-creating liberal texts of this middle phase displace resentments in the defeated South and divert a troubled national liberal culture, confused by its own victories at times, into hand-maiden to a State that could ambiguously be an agent for or against the people.

The Third Phase - The Sixties - The Creation of the New Liberal Mind: Fear, Anger & Guilt

The final phase is the one most of us are familiar with. Like the 1850s, it represents a point of concentrated energy that shifts the ground within the culture, creating the Democrat Party of today and the resentments of small-town conservatism that fuel Republican revolts. The texts below cover the three key psychological developments that rule liberal thinking today - environmentalism, feminism and a passion for indigenous movements as somehow more pure than urban man. These are three centres of contemporary radical thinking in politics and the media.

Notice that the works of sexual and 'negro' liberation - though important to those communities - are not on the list because these were primarily matters of direct action and not texts, though the texts were many. And we have two women on the list for the first time - third phase liberalism is increasingly driven by women and women's values to the extent that the crisis of support emerging today lies in the alienation of working class men who could be taken for granted in the first two phases as supportive of their bourgeois betters' aspirations for rights and reform.

Rachel Carson
And there is one film on the list that has almost been forgotten now but, at the time, brought the message of Dee Brown about forgotten history into exceptionally gory focus for a mass population:

  • Rachel Carson - Silent Spring (1962): An environmentalist ur-text
  • Betty Friedan - The Feminist Mystique (1963): Hardline quasi-Marxist introduction to feminism
  • Paul Ehrlich - The Population Bomb (1968): Existential panic over scarce resources
  • Dee Brown - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970): Guilt at the genocide of the indigenes
  • Film - Soldier Blue (1970)

The sixties are rightly regarded as a cultural watershed. These types of text and film helped to create a new liberal ideology of rights (especially for women and then for a range of other identity groups based on gender and orientation), imperial guilt and existential fear that drove the babyboomer political project and the opposing conservative communitarian reaction to contest each other right up until the age of the internet.

For those who have not spent time in the American school system (as I have) and are puzzled by the American liberal response to the world, a world which such liberals persist in not trying to understand in its complexity, these three phases may help comprehension of what they are dealing with.

The first phase gives us a genuinely liberal moral absolutism and sentimentality that the world is not what it should be and can be put right by individual endeavour and sentimental good will.

The second long phase shows a determined commitment to mythologising history in order to make things right, a progressive optimism that struggle will return the world to what it should have been if there had been no 'fall' and periodic, latterly apocalyptic, despair at the world as it is.

The last phase focuses on the moral wrongs that are to be found everywhere - in the world as a whole and not just the american world - and that our environment, equality and protection of the vulnerable are 'causes' where, perhaps, facts are not the issue but the will to change things ... which brings us back to the impetus behind the transcendentalism of the 1850s.

And the rest, as they say, is history ...

Saturday, 15 November 2014

In Praise of Freyja

If a divine figure is associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, 'seidr' (sorcery), war and death, then you can be pretty sure that it is a she and that it represents the 'elan vital' that surges within the best of humanity. So it is with the Nordic Goddess Freyja (or Freya and its many variants).

The Prose Edda calls Freyja 'the most glorious' of goddesses. She rules over the heavenly Folkvangr, where that half of those who die in battle who do not go to Odin's Valhalla will go after death. She is also the most approachable of the Aesir/Vanir to ordinary mortals, especially in prayers about matters of love.

Odin is Aesir and Freyja and her brother Freyr are Vanir - two separate clans of gods who clearly have separate constituencies amongst men. To shift allegiance from Freyja to Odin would be a serious matter.

Her hall is Sessrumnir. She pines for her often absent husband-god Odr and is sought after as a wife by the nature spirits, the Giants or Jotnar. Her slot was eventually and weakly filled with the worship of the Virgin Mary after Christianisation but there is no reason to assume an original Nordic virgin matriarchy, merely appropriation.

Frigg being wife of Odin and both Frigg and Freyja speculatively drawn from a single original Germanic goddess, the question arises whether a clan led by the masculine principle of Odin and one led by the feminine principle of Freyja does not in some way suggest a 'decision'. Certainly Frigg and Freyja share the position of highest goddesses.

Since Odr is cognate with Odin and Odin represents a different form of elan vital - furious, excited, imaginative, declamatory, the world of the mind as well as magic, war and death - then the polarities of a masculine clan with a cypher wife and a feminine clan with an absent husband asks for a unification of Aesir and Vanir as a mystic marriage.

Already we can see what Odin and Freyja share - struggle for resources, battle, magical powers - but Freyja's sexuality and possession (love, beauty, fertility, gold) contrasts with Odin's mental powers of prophecy, imagination and wisdom. The female/male contrast of function within a shared struggle ends with Odin representing ultimate victory and the hunt.

After the war, the Aesir and Vanir maintain cordial relations, mostly in alliance against the raw nature spirits of the Giant world. In one story from the popular Trimskvida, Freyja's refusal to comply with the demands of Thor to fit in with his plans ensures that he has to come up with an alternative one which forces both Thor and Loki into drag - an interesting reversal to say the least.

Was this true to something deep in the human condition that warriors might choose this clan rather than that clan (or be chosen by their nature) for though the two clans are separate, they are unified after a war which neither wins, mirroring the merging of supposedly feminine and masculine values in one good society?

Freyja is the Lady. Her values are aristocratic and high-born, not those of the wife of a carpenter. Her name is cognate with Frau but she is Scandinavian - her cognate Frigg is to be found amongst Germans and Scandinavians alike.

The two clans might as much be about the unification of tribes as having some mystic or hermetic import but, whatever the background, the Scandinavian Freyja, set against the Scandinavian Odin represents a certain purity and power in the unified polarities fitted to the culture.

Freyja will stand up to Loki with great force when Loki slanders each of the goddesses in turn. The exchange in the Lokasenna (part of the late Poetic Edda) is interesting because Loki's taunts are the taunts of the devil yet the devil's morality is conventional whereas the old gods, represented by Njordr, Freyr's father, take a very different view.

Njordr says that a woman having a lover who is not her husband is harmless and that it is Loki who is the pervert. The precise meaning of this is lost in time except that the reversal of the role of the devil at a time when Scandinavia was being Christianised suggests that a free and relaxed sexuality was good and taunting and moralising was bad in the displaced culture.

May we deduce that Loki here is a satirical over-turning of the incoming Church's claims to legislate for sexual propriety amongst the Viking aristocrats of the Middle Ages - in which case, the Devil (Loki) won and Sweden came to have one of the most repressive and unpleasant of official sexual cultures under Protestantism many centuries later.

Even today, Swedish culture is depressingly earnest and po-faced about sexuality - still apparently free in the sense of permitting anything between consenting adults but then taking away what it gives by making consent so tightly defined by essentialist Christian values that its peculiar brand of feminism demonises sex workers and de-erotises anything it touches.

Like all pre-Christian war band deities, Freyja will grant boons to loyal servants but will expect sacrifices to be made of ox blood on stone altars (Hyndluljod).

It was said that she introduced (Heimskringla) 'seidr' (sorcery) to the Vanir. This suggests that her magic (feminine) is different from that of Odin (masculine). Since seidr is a distinctive type of magic, close to shamanism, this argues for Freyja and the Vanir as culturally distinct, speculatively the indigenes of Scandinavia before Germanic farmers arrived though nothing is certain here.

Her animals, unlike Odin's ravens, wolves (later tamed in folklore into dogs) and a monstrous horse, are domesticates, cats that pull her chariot. She may struggle but it is from the hearth. The exception is her many searches for her absent husband which, unexplained, echo the wanderings of Orpheus.

Freyja is also intellectually dominant and an independent domain holder. She not merely stands up to gods like Thor using reason and with strength of purpose but she develops into the last surviving goddess during the era of transition from paganism to Christianity. Somehow Ragnarok is forgotten and she is left standing.

In the fourteenth century, a saga represents the final struggle between Odin and Freyja in allegorical terms in a tale of competing wives who pray to the respective god and goddess - the candidate of Freyja wins.

By the end of that century though, in the Christian-inspired Sorla Tattr, Freyja has become little more than a high class prostitute, concubine to Odin and bartering sex for gold with the dwarves. The story comes from an era when the old gods have been purposefully 'degenerated' into sleazy folk-tales.

The Church did what it could, in this tale and through the pulpit, to diminish Freyja. Her free and noble sexuality was clearly to be used against her in yet another case of Christian cultural dessication. As a folk goddess, regardless of the pastors, she survived in Iceland until the eighteenth century and in rural Sweden until the nineteenth.

Evidence from 1880 suggests that rural Swedes still considered Freyja to be a kind goddess, linked to agricultural fertility and contrasted with the murderous moody Thor, whose name the Christians had fully succeeded in blackening, helped by his character, no doubt, as God of marauders, his hammer symbol once a more direct challenge to the cross.

So, in a manner of speaking, Freyja only 'died' 120 years ago, a remarkable survival even if she was a pale shadow of her strong, feisty, feminine self of the Early Middle Ages. A new 'romantic' Freyja re-emerged in the early nineteenth century but this was an artistic phenomenon amongst the middle classes.

Most famously, the gods and goddesses were re-born in Wagner's Ring Cycle. Late romantic Northern European artists frequently depictic her in quasi-erotic terms that said more about the lust for her elan vital amongst repressed males than it did about the goddess herself.

Is she relevant today? At one level, she has degenerated into an artistic meme for late romantics and symbolists with no meaningful allegiance amongst the folk. But at another the dynamic of her existence as a strong role model for equality, amongst free gods and goddesses fighting raw nature and living life to the full, stands.

This is a goddess who is both everywoman in a free state - in command of her property, intellectually engaged, equal - and an object of respectful desire by any man who would command a tribe or a household. This is the open, tribal society that the Roman crushed with guile and lies and not by force and made closed-in, repressive and cruel.

Perhaps she should be invited back to rule men and gods alike ....

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Psychopathy, Good and Evil - A Primer

The psychologist James Fallon's account of his self proclaimed psychopathy in this article (October 6th, 2014) is highly plausible. We can summarise its content by reproducing one paragraph although I recommend that you read the full interview for yourself:
In 2006, Fallon was studying the brain scans of psychopathic killers when he happened to compare them to a scan of his own brain. The characteristic deactivation of emotional regions was unmistakable. He discovered for himself what friends and family had been insisting for years: Fallon was a psychopath—albeit a “pro-social” one, as he likes to say. The 66-year-old father of three is happily married, highly successful in his field, and has no criminal record
His Buddhist comment is suggestive, sounds intuitively right and rather chimes with our own criticism of the creed with its detachment and 'death instinct'. The path to zen/chan thinking has many of the attributes of what the Western liberal mind might call 'psychopathy':
You know, there’s one psychiatrist I spent time with in India. She goes, “Jim, you’re actually a natural Buddhist. The type of empathy you have is not for people, but for mankind. That’s very Buddhist.” I think if I had been brought up in the Buddhist system, it might’ve been even easier.
Despite the obviously and possibly deliberately manipulative aspects of an interview designed to sell a book, there is the meat of some important thinking in here about our species, about the balance of skills within the species necessary for survival and about empathy as equal to and not superior to psychopathy in that context.

There is also some reason to think further here about the mis-diagnosing of Hitler and the SS as psychopaths and of Gandhi and Mandela as empaths (because it suits the liberal mind to have false links between good and evil on the one hand and these diagnostic attributes on the other) and about the 'feminisation' (I refer to cultural norms of the feminine and not actual female behaviour here and the distinction is important) of the West.

And about how moral codes are inculcated and chosen - his remnant catholicism is familiar to me as a 'recovering Catholic' as is the idea that a strict code can switch into a denial of the source and meaning of the code and yet become, nevertheless, existentially central to the person and about the importance to this sort of mind of manipulative intention and dislike of illusion, and of the dangers (in my view) of becoming lost in unnecessary intellectual mind games just for the sport of it.

In his case, this competitve sporting aspect is perhaps most interesting. Fallon has denied himself and others free will because he seems to be driven by the need to play a game within codes he likes to think are absolute. This need for the absolute is perhaps a hidden need for absolution for simply being alive and this has led him to see that this is formally 'psychopathic' (I think he is right). Psychopathy in his case may simply be a despairing death instinct, a form of hidden depression about life.

Nietzsche's 'beyond good and evil' is thus not psychopathic but the possible cure for both psychopathy and dysfunctional empathy insofar as it is also 'beyond the necessity to play a game' - and beyond the need for absolutes and so beyond the need for absolution. Fallon has not escaped the game and so he has not worked or cannot work through his apparent psychopathy to where it should lead - that point most liberal minds are terrified of, incorrectly in my opinion, despite the fact that it results in a more functional inability to do evil.

Ceasing to play the game on terms that loosen all the structures that seem both to hold the alleged psychopath to account and to institutionalise the language (though less certainly the practice) of empathy is not merely a potential liberation but a potential exorcism of the 'evil' associated with the sociopathic and a stripping away of the illusory good that lies in the pain and presumption of the self declared 'empath'.

The outrage and irrationalities of the empath and the encoded gaming mentality of the psychopath remain anxious, either willing the world to be not what it is and descending into fantasy or accepting what is given too readily in order to 'game it'. This is a point beyond the Christ or the Buddha where the zen or chan master may also lead but to which there are many other paths.

'Beyond good and evil' is thus being beyond both the wilful denial of the brute nature of men and the enforced cultural codes of the empath, certainly beyond the exploitative game-playing without real purpose except the game (the mentality of the football fan), into something where the world is taken as it is - not as it must be - and as it could be through effective positive manipulation.

The world 'as it must be' is always a dynamic projection of the individual with all his or her anxieties and insecurities. The individual is better off dealing with the world 'as it is' on their own terms and not on the terms of some inherited and habituated absurd game. Such an attitude is beyond empathy and psychopathy but contains elements of both. It has to see into the souls of others and read the signs in order to truly understand the world yet become detached in relation to the ebb and flow of neuroses and hysteria that is at the core of the world of souls.

Detachment is thus recovered as a 'good' but is redirected from the Buddhist 'death instinct' to the flow of life in the world and with a decent mindfulness of the likeness and well as difference of others from oneself, the desire to 'do no evil' simply emerges, not from some anxious troubled empathy but from the facts of the matter. The 'doing of no evil' soon becomes the 'doing of sufficient good'.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Importance of Secularism In Defence of Freedom

Freedom to choose one's pattern of relationships, lifestyle and sexuality self-evidently requires freedom from the dictates of others with different views on such things. Since religion is historically a business of dictates (this is unanswerable), there is no freedom for many people without freedom from religion.

We may choose not to be free (to accept dictates) or we may find a religion whose dictates accord precisely with our own preferred patterns of relationship, lifestyle and sexuality (not an impossible aspiration) but if we choose to accept dictates that go against our very nature then we must choose not to be free freely and not impose our choice against freedom on others.

Or perhaps we can turn a religion into freedom by demanding that it no longer dictates anything - in which case it is no longer a religion of commands and orders but a community of spritualised individuals. No world religion has ever been this and only this and no other.

The Sacralisation of the Real

So much, so simple since religion is not the same as political order. Political order can be maintained without recourse to the supernatural. The decisions of secular order may be hard to stomach sometimes but they should not arise from an elaborate extension of the mental states of the few over the many, ones not based on the hard facts of the matter.

Political order is what it says on the tin - a matter of order even if the question is begged for whose benefit the order exists. If a political order adopts a religion for the sake of social order, as Constantine and innumerable other world leaders have done, then the question is part-answered - the order is not for the benefit of those whose freedom is to choose a particular private life.

Personal freedom, including the freedom to believe what one will, is thus ineluctably bound up with secularism. Faith-based communitarian interventions in the condition of the people must always be viewed with suspicion as failures in the ability of secular power to maintain good order and as potential oppressions against the person.

When the secular power can no longer cope with change or the hegemony of its ruling elites are threatened, religion can often present itself as a quick fix, turning the need for psychic order and discipline and the special interests supported by communitarian values into a social police force to be directed against the free person ... and so innumerable Dark Ages begin. We may be in such a time. 

Outside the power play, with religion as the tool of order, the sacralisation of reality is a wholly private matter for adults, those who can choose to associate with others of like mind but who cannot and should not coerce those who are discovering themselves for themselves or are vulnerable to coercion.

This prejudice towards freedom is not a prejudice for bad manners but manners are not to be imposed by the institutions of the community. Good manners are set by example. Texts cannot bind a person, only a person can bind a person to texts. To let a text bind you is like letting a person other than oneself bind you - a form of slavery. Unthinking belonging to texts is slavery.

On The Sanctity of the Vital

Where a religious sensibility has value is when it moves from text and command (as in Judaism, Biblical fundamentalism, Papal pronunciamento and Koranic determination) to one of principle that requires no supernatural or God-like element but perhaps, at most, only an added agnosticism about what we can call the natural.

Oddly, the bete noire of many resentful of religious claims, Catholicism, may have the most effective 'fundamental principle' in its notion of the sanctity, meaning the profound value, of all human life from conception to death. This value might be extended to animal, alien and AI but the core principle remains - the value of the vital expressed as the person.

Catholicism takes a wrong turning in embedding this value in a God and in an Afterlife  - and in the exegesis of cumulative texts - and in failing to discriminate adequately between the consequent relative value and potential of lives once the core value is accepted.

But the insight is definitely there - that personal existence and self-creation in the world overrides any social or economically determined value to others or the convenience or self-determined devaluation of oneself or others. We are sacred - not the planet, not the church, not the race - us as persons.

Difficult Issues

This means that euthanasia, eugenics, the death penalty and abortion are not either/or issues against the Church but are battlegrounds where social order and personal aspiration really do contend over ground contested with a Church which has something to say even if its rigid position does not say all that there is to be said.

The secular moral position must be that euthanasia, eugenics, the death penalty and abortion cannot be treated in themselves in an absolutist way (as the Church would) but that the implementation of such policies need to be considered with high seriousness in the context of the principle of the value of the vital. This high seriousness about life is what we must concede to the Vatican.

This applies to sexual choice, not in the sense that free adults should not be free to do what they will but insofar as sexuality is highly charged in its effects on persons. Value vitalism requires seriousness in considering the balance of interest between persons, steering between the Scylla of solipsism and the Charybdis of another's psychic vampirism.

In this sense, the free should only associate with the free or at least only with those who clearly crave freedom. Those who prefer 'slavery' should be permitted to submit - so long as a door can always be left open in case they change their mind. There must always be an unlocked door to the outside.

Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body

This sense of responsibility is profoundly different from that of, say, Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body because it is existential: it refuses to let an institutional arrangement or a command to dictate moral choice but, on the other hand, it recognises that sexual activity remains a moral choice of sorts.

Pope John Paul II asserted that extra-marital sexuality falsified the language of the human body and he spoke of total love. But this is a totalitarian love that idealises human sexuality beyond its ability to keep to the ideal. Ultimately, it is cruel and the novels of Western literature are often a testament to that cruelty. I recommend Anna Karenina as the standard answer to cruelty.

The Pope denied two general possibilities - that the approved institution of marriage might become the holding bay for controlling and cruel instincts that merely masquerade as love and that a person can give reverence and love to more than one embodied person or 'incarnate spirit' at the same time and even in the same place (the 'polyamorous option' so to speak)..

For a culture of faith, the lack of faith in the possibility of extended love is quite remarkable. As we have seen in the posting on PB Randolph, who tried to extend the language of sacred sex under Victorian conditions, his idealism of control and harmony, of sacrifice and totalitarian commitment, is well within the ideological framework of Pope John Paul II.

Religion as Sexual Regulation

Islam, of course, is different again because sexuality is essentially treated here as a problem of social order and of regulation. In this respect it is brutally honest about its purpose and perhaps that should be respected. The result is yet another Iron Age cultural model imposed on a very different world but at least Christian idealism is displaced here by a practical, almost cynical, commitment to the social.

In practice, this determination on communitarian social order (with property ultimately underpinning the model) can result in oppressions of sexual preference and freedom more awesome in their effects even than those proposed by the other religions of the book though the complexity of this 'order' is often underestimated.

All this is a matter of cumulative traditionalist interpretation by clerical legislators of laws as God's Will rather than the fruit of an idealism that is supposed to replace human nature entirely. We see something similar, despite the myths in the West, in mainstream Hinduism which is stunningly prudish by modern Western standards.

This difference is important - asserting sexual behaviour by traditionalist authoritarian command is unpleasant but perhaps less creepy ultimately than expecting sexual compliance through a totalitarian ideology. Tradition at least arises out of some sense of a past need for order in conditions of scarcity. Modern totalitarian sexual restrictions have no such excuse.

Spiritual Liberalisms

We can contrast totalitarian and traditional authoritarian models of sexual conduct with the permissive value-driven approach of the Unitarian Universalists which retains the ideology of sexual value but re-interprets it to permit same sex marriage, moderated abstinence programmes based on 'full information' and personal choice as to conduct and orientation.

The Buddhists, meanwhile, practice a sort of avoidance strategy where sexuality is quite simply diminished as 'carnal' and so as a distraction from the spirit. Buddhism is, as we have often pointed out, a religion of the death instinct, of negation, where even Catholicism appears ideologically progressive about life itself. Pope John Paul II himself castigated Buddhism for this quality.

But theory is different from practice and Buddhist avoidance strategy has the excellent effect of removing sexual regulation from religion entirely, returning it perforce to the struggle between individual choice and social norms.

The link between Buddhist ideology and sexual pleasure in the West and in Japan are thus convenient constructions out of this neglect but the Buddha himself advised his followers in strong terms to avoid unchastity 'as if it were a pit of burning cinders'. Enough said!

The Neo-Pagan Revolt

This leads us inevitably to the neo-pagan revolt against Judaeo-Christianity but, even here, things are not simple. Neo-paganism seems sex-positive and often is but it is also a mish-mash of reconstructed traditions and beliefs often with an underlying essentialism about male/female 'polarities' or about the 'mother'.

Someone like Starhawk can sound as po-faced about social norms as any rabbi or Catholic intellectual but the over-sacralisation of sexuality in general seems to be more a determination to compare and contrast with Christianity than an effort at existential liberation from spiritual ideology and social norms per se.

The best that can be said about neo-paganism is that it offers a set of safe havens for 'differently cultured' persons, giving a community and a spirituality that the other Great Religions have denied them.

The Great Rite itself is simply the transposition of the ideology of PB Randolph into a new cultural environment and is either performed figuratively (which hardly seems the point, almost seeming a little cowardly) or it reverts back into the private domain where it can become as much bedroom performance art as spiritual act.


Neo-paganism as a spiritual practice is liberatory for many but it cannot and should not be confused with the liberation of the person as person. Yet it is probably the most advanced way-station to trans-human liberation available within the ideology of spirituality, especially with its permissive 'an it harm none, do as thou wilt' (the Wiccan Rede).

But the essence of all these restrictive views on human conduct is that they should remain voluntarist and private. The successful attempt of the religious to impose its sexual values more widely on society at large often becomes an anxious obsession amongst its adherents. This must be resisted at every level, including attempts to control the means of education and information.

Nothing is more important for freedom of all types than that the political order should be and should remain secular!