Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fatalism, Liezi and Politics

I've been thinking a lot about "fatalism" lately.   Primarily, this is because my significant other got me thinking about determinism---as revealed in my previous post.  But in the process of writing that previous post, I started rereading a part of the Liezi, namely Chapter 6, which A. C. Graham titles "Endeavour and Destiny".  This in turn, has become something of a literary "brain worm" that I cannot get out of my head.

I think that this is because I am deeply consumed by the "Fate of the Earth", and how human society seems incapable of dealing with substantive problems that arise from it.  Here in Canada the Conservative government in Ottawa has tabled an omnibus budget bill that pretty much seeks to pass years worth of changes all in one fell swoop.  This is a totally unprecedented action and an insane abuse of our Parliamentary tradition.  It really is the case that the Prime Minister has so concentrated power over his caucus that he has reduced them to trained seals who bark at his command.

Things seem hardly better in the USA.  There big money has taken over the political process to the point where all sorts of special interests have gained a veto over legislation, appointments and other elements of good governance.  The result isn't some sort of conspiratorial government, however.  That's because all they have gained is a veto----they actually cannot put forward any agenda themselves either.  The result is paralysis.

Much the same sort of thing seems to be happening in Europe.  It is obvious to all and sundry that the EU has to develop some sort of supra-national regulation framework in order to deal with the present monetary crisis.  Yet the various parties seem in capable of "pulling together" to get the job done.

As an outsider who wishes for better and who has devoted a great deal of energy into politics, it seems that there literally isn't anything that anyone can do to make the world a better place.  Instead, it appears that we are suffering from a specific type of "fate"  and any power we have to change the world is simply an illusion.

This is a pretty startling thing for a modern person to espouse.  Yet, if you read ancient wisdom literature, the idea of a "fate" predetermined by forces outside of our control is pretty common.

"Death and life depend on destiny, riches and poverty depend on the times."  He who resents being cut off in his prime does not know destiny.  He who resents poverty and distress does not know the times.  To meet death unafraid, to live in distress without caring, is to know destiny and accept what time brings. (Liezi, A.C. Graham, p-132, Columbia Morningside Edition, 1990)   
It's always seemed to me that this attitude is incompatible with living in a modern, industrial democracy.  After all, if we are going to pursue science, democracy and the extension of human rights, people need to have some sort of belief in their ability to "do something" based on their personal effort.

This is the idea that since we are governed by fate anyway, why bother?  For example, if you are sick you know that you are either going to get better or not,  what is the point of asking for a doctor?   Actually, this particular example exists in the Liezi.  The argument seems fallacious to modern readers, but up until the middle of the 19th century you probably were better off not seeing a doctor, because their treatments usually caused more harm than good.

Even if modern medicine had not improved greatly since Liezi's time, the argument would still not really be terribly hard on fatalism.  It can be argued that just as someone is "fated" to either get well or not, in the same way, you could be argued that people are fated to either be left alone or have a doctor inflicted upon them.  I recall, for example, that Mother Teresa begged her nuns to let her die in peace without heroic medical intervention, yet they refused to listen and ordered the doctors to do their worst best for her final hours of life.

Indeed, the greatest fear of fatalism for modern people is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. People don't try because they think the results are set from the beginning, and not trying ensures that one set of negative results will result.  To this extent, fatalism is a pernicious evil.  But that, I think is not the point that Liezi is trying to make.

Previous to the quote I cited above, he contrasts a bunch of characters whom he names as "Artful", "Hothead", "Sleepy", "Wide Awake", "Tricky", "Simple", "Tactless", "Fawning", "Underhand", "Frank", "Tongue-tied", "Browbeat", "Cheeky", "Stolid", "Daring" and "Timid".   Note that most of these names refer to types of behaviour.  These are not people who chose to do nothing because fate had decreed all outcomes.  The point is that they acted in harmony with their inner nature, which is why Liezi says of all of them:  "These various attitudes are outwardly very different, yet all these men travelled on the Way in the direction destined for them." (p.131)

The point isn't what these people did, it's the attitude that they brought to their actions.  They were willing to accept that no matter how hard they try to do things, ultimately their fate is decided by forces outside of their control.  This attitude allows people to avoid two very significant pitfalls of politics.

The first of these is the idea that we have to be oh-so-clever in our calculations when it comes to things like voting.   I used to see this all the time when I was running for political office.  People would come to me and say "Oh I love your platform and agree 100% with everything you say.  But I simply cannot vote for you because you have no chance of winning and it would just be a 'wasted' vote."   ("The Simpsons" lampooned this in "Citizen Kang" in "TreeHouse of Horror:  VII".  When Homer reveals that Bob Doe and Bill Clinton have been replaced by aliens, most people refuse to vote for a third party candidate because that would be a "wasted vote".)  The problem is, of course, that if you always vote for the "lessor of two evils", you always end up voting for an "evil".  It also means that whatever party you vote for usually ends up ignoring you when in office because you have "nowhere else to go".

If voters simply "follow their heart" and vote for what they think is the best candidate no matter what, they stop having to do this sort of thing.  It not only makes people feel better, I believe it ultimately frees up the political system from the various perversions that come from thinking of votes as being "wasted".  This is something like Gandhi's ideal of "living the world you want to see".

The second problem with this sort of thinking refers to the way people in politics live their lives.  A lot of people involved "in the process" tie themselves up in knots trying to be all things to all people and by trying to give 120% of their energy.  This is based on the idea that when things go "wrong" it is always their "fault".   The fact of the matter, though, is that in politics the effort you make only rarely has all that much effect.  Sometimes people get elected in landslides who had no hope at all of being elected.  Other times people who have every reason to believe that they would be returned to office easily get trounced.  The problem is that it rarely is "up to you".

In both cases, a simple awareness of how important fate is to the project you are pursuing will take a great deal of the personal pressure that people impose upon themselves.  A similar attitude can help throughout most of life.  That job you always wanted may simply not be there for you no matter how hard you try.  No matter how much you work at helping your child succeed, he might just end up being a lump with no discernible ambition.  If the time isn't right, no amount of work can make a business succeed.

Accept your fate and live a happier life.  Not bad advice, if you ask me

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