Paul Ryan: The “Individual versus the Collective”
It appears that Paul Ryan is a rabid fan of Ayn Rand. According to clips I have heard on Democracy Now, he feels that almost every issue can be boiled down to – not a clash of civilizations – but a clash of philosophies: those who “defend the individual” versus those would promote “collectivity”, the latter of which he deplores and has apparently sworn to fight at every turn in American political life. If, in preparing for the campaign trail, as Romney’s VP running mate, he is stepping slightly away from this earlier position, nevertheless, that he has been an articulate defender of this ideology which so essentially underpins both “Free Market” and imperial policies must give informed observers pause.
Further, in keeping with much of modernity, Mr. Ryan is not able to conceive alterities within which this dialectic could be resolved – although other cultures have indeed found intellectual and emotional positions which accommodate both person and society in mutual respect – indeed, conceive of multifaceted, multiply informing relationships.
What might give the Catholic church pause, given that Mr. Ryan is nominally Catholic, is that his position is in contradiction to one of the most basic tenets of the church – that the church is itself “the body of Christ” – a religious “collectivity” to which millions spiritually adhere. A sixth century Christian theologian, Dionysius the Areopagite , “translated” substantive ideas from the fourth century Neo-Platonic philosopher, Iamblichus, to work as orthodox/ Orthodox mystical teaching, developing “the body of Christ” doctrine as exegesis stating the (hoped for) reality of the whole church. It is worth going back to Iamblichus himself, as Gregory Shaw has done, to explore the origins of this idea of spiritual collectivity, tracing it forward into Christian belief. Although, to be sure, we can also turn our attention to other kinds of “collectivity” that matter in contemporary society and culture – and shall do so presently – but because this issue is so central to Mr Ryan’s social and political agenda, the arguments to rebut that position will be the better for drawing on the deepest levels of Western heritage: best to begin at the beginning, where right and left maybe said to have spiritually divided early.
According to Shaw (see “Iamblichus and the Descent of the Soul”), what Iamblichus taught was that “the Divine” was Ineffable in its most spiritual and most complete form but that “in showing Itself forth in Glory”, it became more solidified, so to speak, as it became more manifest and that both “descent” and “ascent” were part of the great Cycle of the Divine, of which human souls took part. There was a continual flow down into Incarnation and up into Ineffableness. As the Divine moved through levels of incarnation, different spiritual entities were manifest in their appropriate places and for their appropriate functions until every sentient thing and every living creature existed as instances of the entire Showing Forth. Every human culture that was in its place of origin had an inherent knowledge of the Divine encoded in its territory (as a place of specific manifestation – thus, the ancient wisdom of Indigenous cult) and every human soul had the capacity to remember its journey within the Divine Cycle – and had a sacred duty to do so.
The former idea is why Iamblichus was so intent on salvaging Pagan cult among the “Chaldeans”, the “Egyptians” and the “Syrians” and had, as well, great respect for the Jews, whom he saw as preserving traditions of wisdom and knowledge about the Divine, authentic to their own deep history and locale. On the other hand, he had little respect for the Greeks or the Romans, whom he saw as purloining religious ideas, as we would say, “out of context” (and thus misunderstanding them and using them for inauthentic purposes).
The latter idea, concerning the circuitous route of the human soul, up into the realms of the Ineffable Itself and down into, not a “fallen” world with any sense of pejorativeness, but into manifestation – literally, the World as the Body Shown Forth of the Divine – made it possible for humans to play a very critical role in the continuing “redemption” of the world, which was to remind human kind (and indeed, all of manifest creation) of its true substance and essence as part of the Divine Cycle.
For Iamblichus, evil was having forgotten that one’s soul was part of the Divine Collective. Evil was an acceptance, through momentary diversion, of a false separation between the self and the SELF – it was a loss of understanding about the meaning of incarnation as Divine process and the Divine Cycle as Sacred Collective of interactive, manifesting and transcending, constituent parts which nevertheless could never lose the underlying character of Wholeness. It was this forgetfulness which needed to be continually overcome and it was commitment to the work of remembering and remembrance which was redemption.
One can immediately see that for an Iamblichus disciple, “Free Market” economies and the valourization of the individual would be to go in precisely the wrong direction to achieve redemption. The church, while certainly not embracing a Neo-Platnic Philosopher (who, moreover, practised “theurgy” – a form of religious rite concerned with facilitating that redeeming memory and with providing an avenue of communication with and experience of “in-your-face” Divinity), did, however, find some Iamblichian concepts useful.
And, moreover, the developing church had a rather soft spot for him along the lines of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Unlike Plotinus, who loathed Christians, Iamblichus loathed Gnostics of any stripe (Jewish, Christian or Pagan), because, while they also believed in levels of incarnated Divinity, for them the coming into an incarnated state was a decided fall: it was trapping light within something coarse and sordid. Ergo, this world could only be about sin and suffering – redemption was getting out of it. But to Iamblichus, these were terribly blasphemous, spiritually offensive and socially destructive ideas. (And for o/Orthodox Christians, since Jesus’s death was supposed to have redeemed the world: it could no longer be considered fallen). Much as early Jewish texts stated that “God had created the world and saw that it was good”, so too for Iamblichus, the world was good and could not be otherwise, despite the suffering in it – in fact, the World was the manifest Body of the Divine.
Since Iamblichus was a formidable opponent of the Gnostics whom the church was also trying to rout, he became a source of inspiration for its early theology. By narrowing the Incarnation to a divinized Jesus and by reinterpreting the Body of God to be the Body of Christ as the church itself, echoes of Iamblichus drifted through Western thought until his recent more robust resurrection in the capable hands of Gregory Shaw. Indeed, the Orthodox church has, in the last few years, begun to explore Iamblichus’ original writings for further insight into the Pagan World from which Christianity draws so much of its content and form.
But with regards to Mr. Ryan and Ayn Rand, seen through the understanding of spiritual collectivity, be it the larger World of the Divine Body or the smaller world of the Body of Christ, evil is exactly that which they have championed, deliberate auto – alienation of the self from the Whole. To champion “individualism” is to reject the spiritual collective within which we live, move and have our incarnated being.
But one does not have to enter the rarified realms of ancient philosophy and religion to understand the error that Mr. Ryan makes. What is “collective” is public and what is public belongs to the common. If you travel a roadway, you are using a common good; if you draw water from a tap or flush your toilet, you are using a common good; if you call on a telephone, though it may be provided by a corporation taking profit, the service, itself, is a common good and ought to be administered by public representatives – otherwise known, in a democracy, as the government. To belong to a political party is to belong to a collective; to vote is to assent to a collective; to assemble for political rhetoric is to participate in collectivity.
If it is true that Mr. Ryan has a vision, shared “collectively” with other right wingers, that government ought to be reduced in size “until it can be drowned in a bathtub” – in reality leaving only the military under nominal control – and that control controlled by corporations and their elites, then it would be benefiting one small collectivity at the expense of the larger: oligarchs and plutarchs at the expense of the public common. This would be evil indeed, the deliberate separation out from the whole, the repudiation of social and spiritual belonging together – but note, not “pure” individuality versus collectivity, but a privileged collectivity versus a disenfranchised one. It was this kind of social, cultural and spiritual separation that Iamblichus recognized and fought against 1800 years ago – and that we must resist again, now, in every age where privilege seeks to distance itself from the World as it is. Though there are many religious paths, there is among them agreement that “society” requires assented participation. Thatcher, Reagan and Ryan are wrong, all of them: religiously, philosophically, socially and culturally – as Iamblichus and the Church knew, society does exist, its members share many things in common and through a common, have resonance as a common. What Hayekians, Rands and their followers lack is the imagination to understand how individuality can exist within a collective. But they have only to look around at the world: It shows forth its wholeness while we experience ourselves as both unique and as participants in the collective common of the Whole. Pity them but do not let them decide the fate of the Whole, here on our Earth planet, itself an instance of the Great Showing Forth.