So said Glenn Beck at his rally this weekend. And as I reflect on this rally, treating it as a symptom of our current historical circumstances, I wonder if there isn’t a way in which he is right. This thesis, that it isn’t about politics, but rather about God, sounds remarkably like Hegel’s description of Stoicism and Unhappy Consciousness in The Phenomenology of Spirit. As Hegel writes,
Its [Stoicism's] principle is that consciousness is a being that thinks, and that consciousness holds something to be essentially important, or true and good only in so far as it thinks it to be such. (para. 198)
As a consequence,
Self-will is the freedom which entrenches itself in some particularity and is still in bondage, while Stoicism is the freedom which always comes directly out of bondage and returns into the pure universality of thought. (para. 198)
Epictetus articulates this point aptly in the very first paragraph of the Enchiridion.
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.
Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
Epictetus’s point is that the domain of our thought, judgment, and desire is completely in our control, while our bodies, property, social status, and so on are always dependent on things beyond our control. So long as we carefully attend to our thought, desire, and judgments, directing these powers at what is in our control, Epictetus argues, we are completely free. I may not have control over my body, property, prosperity, and reputation– these things are all beset by arrows of fate beyond my control –but I am in control of how I judge these things. Change my judgments, change what I desire, and these arrows of fate and these things no longer have the power to trouble me. Here, in the domain of thought and judgment, in the domain of desire, I am absolutely free.
In suggesting that it is not about politics, but about God, Beck seems to be suggesting something similar. His point seems to be that so long as we strive to change our social and economic world, so long as we try to take our fate in hands through political engagement, we are doomed to frustration. Far better, he says, to turn away from the earthly world of politics and place our lives in the hands of God. However, as Hegel notes, this Stoic conception of freedom is only an abstract freedom.
Now, it is true that for this self-consciousness the essence is neither an other than itself, nor the pure abstraction of the ‘I’, but an ‘I’ which has the otherness within itself, though in the form of thought, so that in its otherness it has directly returned into itself. Yet at the same time this its essence is only an abstract essence. The freedom of self-consciousness is indifferent to natural existence and has therefore let this equally go free: the reflection is a twofold one. Freedom in thought has only pure thought as its truth, a truth lacking the fullness of life. Hence freedom in thought, too, is only the Notion of freedom, not the living reality of freedom itself. (para. 200)
Now there are, no doubt, a number of reasons for the rise of Christian fundamentalisms (I am not generalizing to Christianity as a whole) in the United States in the last decades. Indeed, much in these religious revivals seem related to insecurities surrounding white men losing their privileged and hegemonic place within culture, coupled with other aspects of the civil rights movement that have sought equality among different groups.
However, is not the rise of these new fundamentalisms also related to a profound sense of powerlessness? Stoicism was a philosophy of slaves, a philosophy of people who felt as if they have no control over their world and circumstances. Even emperors such as Marcus Aurelius felt as if they were enslaved. Here freedom reigned only in thought and how we judge the world around us. The thesis that it is not about politics but about God seems to express a similar sentiment. Here the idea would be that politics has failed, that politics is no longer possible, that we no longer have any concrete freedom but are subject to the whims of economy and government without being able to impact any of these things. At that point, all we can do is turn to God or some other avenue that provides an equivalent escape through “abstract freedom” that might provide us with some peace of mind.
Many of us wonder why there isn’t more outrage over the BP [leak] spill, the deregulations that rendered it possible, the financial downturn, the focus on Wall Street and its prosperity to the detriment of jobs, salaries, benefits and protections, Iraq, torture, Guantanamo, the health care fiasco and so on. I wonder if it’s not that we’re not outraged, but rather numb. Nothing surprises us anymore. Even Glenn Beck attaching the Civil Rights movement, Jesus, and Martin Luther King to a detestable hate-filled agenda no longer surprises us. And it feels as if nothing can ultimately be done. Today we feel like Roman slaves, our bodies belonging to an economy and government, to forces of power with respect to which we have no voice and over which we have no control. There need be no “consciousness raising” here, no overcoming of ideology. We’re aware that our bodies and destinies belong to forces beyond our control, using us for nefarious ends that are against our interests. But we feel as if we have now power, that politics is impossible. Even Obama now looks like the legitimation of Bush era policies. Reversing the old Hegelian formula of “first as tragedy, then as farce” (or was that Marx), it now looks like we first had farce (the Bush administration) and now have tragedy (the Obama administration). Like a repetition the functions to turn something into a reality, Obama’s administration seems to be serving the function of legitimating neo-liberal policies across the board as business as usual, as the ordinary run of things. At least we have better rhetoric, I suppose. Politics becomes impossible. As a consequence, we can only tend our gardens, turn towards God, or engage in “the power of positive thinking”, or pray the “serenity prayer”. Yet perhaps there’s some progress in this thought. Perhaps recognizing ourselves as slaves is already a step towards overturning slavery. I’m not holding my breath, however.