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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
A Private and Public Faith6/28/2007 16:12:07
A few thoughts ("neither here nor there") toward Enframing and revealing (see Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology") a project plaguing me:
The title I use here refers to a book by William Stringfellow, my favorite Rhode Island theologian and folk-philosopher. Using that title gives me occasion to drop another of his titles of a similar sort, which encloses an absolutely wonderful book: The Politics of Spirituality. In that, toward the end of his life and faced with the farce of contributing to a series about "spirituality," Stringfellow echoed what he'd been saying all the time, that God is known through politics. Any Christian spirituality therefore, cannot be better than human relations (my preferred definition of politics), much less any gnostic-transcendentalism. It is the theological equivalent, heartfelt and filled with all his marvelous experience, of the feminist dogma: "the personal is political." Yet Stringfellow, who was himself gay, effortlessly steps beyond the sexual, encompassing it while explicitly ignoring it.
This equation steps off to a whole new place in the psychoanalytic histories of Erik Erikson (I've read and loved Gandhi's Truth and Young Man Luther), which propose the radical suggestion that the great public people of history are actually private people, whose principal motivations and forces shaping them are not global but local and embodied. Of course this is obvious, though not quite realized. What Erikson does so well, though, is take someone like Luther before he is Luther (he calls the pre-Wittenberg man "Martin") and bring us to the point that we forget that this, in fact, is Martin Luther, a special individual. That step leaves a remarkable sensation, shaking the illusions of historicity and official narrative, making human beings human beings again.
The boldest assertion (I wish I had the text with me) is that both Luther and Gandhi, as human beings, have imposed their particularity, their family, their private lives, on humanity. Gandhi said, This is how I will live, this is how India must live. Luther said, This is where I stand, this is where God stands. Both, in Erikson's analysis (and I don't claim that you need to buy it), found their greatness principally in attempts to come to terms with their parents. Clearly, their particular identity crises are not the business of their nations necessarily, but they have become that. Whether you buy the Freudian analysis or not, every person comes onto the public stage bearing a load, a psychosis, and a courage that is precisely personal.
In a world of private and public, ethics would seem to suggest, then, an ideal of perfect quietism - abstaining from politics because all public activity is simply a working out of private motivations. An imposition onto others, using them to work out crises unrelated to them. This fact has never seemed clearer than in these last six years in American government, when the only apparent cause for many of our policies seems to be our President's relationship with his father.
Yet this is the crazy reality precisely of modern politics, of the whole of modern society. It has been since civilization got to the point when it needed a concept of the public. The human mind evolved, evolutionary psychologists suspect, in the context of small groups, likely of no more than two hundred individuals. One can know them all. Stringfellow is right that God is public - the evidence suggests that god-concepts were invented around the same time as the public. Today, the lives of all of us are affected and partly determined by people "in power" who we do not know, who are not part of our private world. The public is an invention of civilization, and it is not what most of our bodies and minds were built for.
Could this be framed as a scale error? Can we say it is a regrettable mistake? Is it a form of psychosis that we necessarily force our private onto the public? It is true, civilized politics has seemed inherently sinful since before the time of the high Roman officials who, even after converting to Christianity, refused to be baptized until their deathbeds because they knew that sin would be unavoidable in their office.
The contention of psychoanalysis, and of much that has come after, has been that for a human being the only motivating reality is a private one - the people who one knows and whose pressures one most directly feels. There are other theories, and certainly much of the time we assume that it is possible to be motivated by "public interest" and other such more sensible motivations for public activity. But it seems that biology is in fact on the side of the psychoanalytic angle, which says that there is no such thing as the public. All motivations can be reduced to the private because people are equipped to know no other. Freud made clear that civilization is a rude but unavoidable imposition, something hostile to the individual psychology. Others have seen civilization as the cradle of the person, but I think there might be a category confusion: private society is, public society is not.
Absolute Power - 7/01/2007 11:21:07