Neoconfucianism and the second Axial Age

In his pernicious Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argues (or, rather, asserts) that the meaning of all the world’s myths and religions is that human categories of being and nonbeing, sacred and profane, good and evil are in fact illusions.  In fact, he claims that a belief in objective good and evil is a sign of an unresolved Oedipus Complex.  Being a modern-day gnostic, it’s hardly surprising that Campbell despises Christianity while praising Buddhism to the skies.  Buddhism is indeed the most historically significant manifestation of what I’ve identified as the gnostic attitude–the refusal to see God’s presence as mediated by physical signs or communal organizations.  It was the world’s first great desacralizing movement.

Any society founded on a vision of sacred order will see a desacralizing movement–be it Buddhist, Marxist, capitalist, or other–as a mortal threat.  Such was China during the Tang Dynasty, and Confucian scholars were not slow to recognize the threat of Buddhism or to denounce it.  It was easy for Confucians to denounce the ascetic side of Buddhism, the encouragement it gave to young men to cast off familial and political responsibilities and become monks.  They were poorly prepared, however, to answer the anti-rational metaphysics of Buddhism.  Confucius himself had famously eschewed metaphysical questions, and China’s Daoist tradition was, if anything, sympathetic to the new ideas.

Fortunately, the partisans of communal sacred order rose to the occasion through the great Confucian revival of the Song dynasty.  Interestingly enough, the key to the counterattack was the rediscovery, half a world away, of key features of Aristotelian metaphysics.  In the metaphysics of the Chen brothers, systematized by Zhu Xi, being has two principles:  li (form) and qi (matter).  It is through the formal principle that all things are connected to the T’ai Chi (the source and summit of form; Plato’s Idea of the Good, more or less).  Hylomorphic doctrine was tied to Confucian ethics by tying human li to morality and ritual.

The system of Zhu Xi became public orthodoxy in China for six centuries, his writings a main subject in the civil service exams.  Then, in the twentieth century, another gnostic craze gripped China, as Sun Yatsen and others decided that the China should abandon its culture and embrace the refuse of Western civilization–the gnostic heresies of nationalism and socialism.  We all know how that turned out.

Karl Jaspers famously pointed to the age of the Upanishads, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, and the Hebrew prophets as the “Axial Age” when all the world’s great civilizations made a leap in spirituality.  This Axial Age gave men for the first time a true sense of God’s transcendence from the world.  It left some work undone, however, in that it didn’t leave an intellectual framework for understanding how God could be both immanent in the world and yet transcend it.  This was left for what I think of as the second or minor Axial Age, when, under pressure from gnostics and pantheists, the great world civilizations were forced to articulate their understanding of how God relates to the world.  Zhu Xi was not only the Chinese equivalent of Thomas Aquinas; he lived at almost the same time.  Go back one more century, and we are in the lifetime of Ibn Sina, one of the greatest of theistic philosophers, who plays a similar role in Muslim thought.  Interestingly, all three–Zhu Xi, Aquinas, and Ibn Sina–were, basically Aristotelians.  Aristotle is the philosopher of choice for social, sacramental religions.  At around the same time, Gregory Palamas confronted the relationship between God and creation in the context of mystical experience, and his writings would become a foundation of modern Eastern Orthodox thought.  Finally, in India, the Bhakti movement would temper Hinduism’s monistic tendencies with an emphasis on interpersonal devotion to a deity.  Ramanuja lived in the eleventh century.

Why do I bring this up on a political blog?  It’s not just that I use this blog as a container (some would say a waste basket) for any of my non-physics-related thoughts.  While the nature of being is more important than politics, it does have political implications.  In my telling, the conservative understanding of authority is a sort of practical application of Saint Thomas’ fourth way.  Authority is one way the polis orients itself toward the transcendent Good.  It partakes in the dialectic of sacred and profane.  Thus, defending the Confucian/Jewish/Christian/Muslim/Hindu sense of the sacred is very much a conservative’s business.

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