Truth, justice, silence

The distinction between truth and justice collapses when examined subjectively. Truth is every mind’s formal pursuit until the project becomes less defined, more vague, more mysterious and unfathomable — and when it is shattered by the circumstances of existence.

The notion of truth is not easily given up: the possibility, the tangible, tactile presence that eludes definition. It is the project of consciousness. According to one’s socialization and culture, truth varies in contour and detail, but seen from a universal perspective, emerges from the culturally dependent and seems to transcend any given society or set of seekers. And yet, it eludes even the generously open frame of mind.

Can this be because what the animal instinct embedded within the human psyche really wants is not the abstraction of truth but the concrete situational condition of justice? Not the institutional interpretation of justice today but the overarching virtue envisioned by philosophers — even when it is not seen in practice. Justice seems more tangible, more concrete, more susceptible to codification and reason, more quantitative, more accountable, more available for knowing and implementing. Justice ought to be a facet of truth. Indeed, if we suspend using the word truth but keep the connotations, we come closer to identifying facets and factors to take into account when defining justice. Justice in this classic sense of harmony is a relational concept that becomes more tangible than truth.

Justice sounds legal and political, dependent on society and circumstance — far more than “truth.” In psychological terms, justice is that balance sought by the mind between the deepest and the more practical aspects of the psyche. Justice is capable of extending the concept of balance and harmony beyond self, self-and-others, and to nature. Justice is practical and flexible, yet as robust a concept as if we are naming something inchoate in nature and not human self-discovery.

But the cry for justice is more fundamental than the need for truth.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes that “There is no built-in harmony between the furtherance of truth and the well-being of humanity.” And this is so because both the pursuit of truth and the well-being of people is always bound by society’s norms, which in turn are defined by society’s elites, by those enjoying power and authority. The outward norms are relative to the culture — relative to those who have defined the culture.

And there is no naturally ordained harmony within these norms because human beings are not “natural.” Aggregate behavior and the pooling of power is never benign. To seek well-being, it is necessary to seek justice, not truth. To seek justice means to seek a harmony not granted by either society nor nature, not the later as “nature doing what we want it to.”

We do not create but discover harmony. We shape our consciousness to this harmony. Justice becomes a useful metaphor for harmony — though the former word is laden with political and social connotations. Legendary and historical presentations of human suffering and plight always point out that “justice” is more urgent, more pressing, than “truth.”

In the Buddhist Jataka tales of the Buddha’s past lives, with their distinctly Hindu social settings, are many representative stories, especially that of the “Gem Thief.” An attractive young couple are riding a horse-drawn cart into the city from the country. The king gets a glimpse of the young woman (her name is Sujata) and desires her at any cost. He orders one of his soldiers to hide a gem in the cart. Then the king announces that someone has stolen his gem, orders the gates closed and everyone searched. The gem is found in the cart. The husband is sentenced to death, while the distraught young woman is led to the palace. She cries out:

There are no gods! Surely they dwell afar!
Surely there are no world-warder here!
Those men who hurriedly work lawless deeds,
Are there none here to bid them stop?

This is a strongly expressed argument for such an ancient document, for it identifies the source of suffering squarely within human society and power. The logical conclusion is that not truth but justice saves, with justice being a maintenance of balance and harmony within any “system.” The story has a happy ending, as do all fairy tales that teach a moral, but we know that this sort of behavior has been universal in all societies, and continues today unrelentingly.

The “Gem Thief” is reminiscent of the Jewish scriptural recounting of King David’s similar actions (2 Samuel: 11). A woman is bathing, and from the rooftop of his palace, the king sees her and wants her at any cost. He arranges the death of her husband, a military officer, by having his forces abandon him to death from the enemy in the heat of battle. Nowhere are Bathsheba’s views recorded, but she too may have wondered if “there are no gods” to thwart the lawless deeds of the powerful.

Another example from Greco-Jewish tradition is the story of Job, about which Jung has elaborated in his essay, “Response to Job.” Here again a representative human being is struck down by authority and power — except that the nature of the crime springs from the conspiracy of God and Satan. The story of Job is probably the best exemplar of this genre of questioning tale, wherein even the happy ending is so unconvincing that it is hard to escape the critique of theology.

In the Christian Gospel’s presentation of Jesus on the cross, he laments: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Though the incident is often glossed over as interpolation or literary device, the Gospel compilers permit a genuine sentiment to appear without mitigation. The words of lament can apply to any number of existential circumstances. The obvious silence of God is ignored in unswerving acceptance of tenets, creeds, and beliefs. Only the attentiveness of conscience to the circumstances of humanity’s situation provides the insight into the contrast of justice and truth. Only the universalizing of moral vision prepares the self for the beginning of truth and the necessity of justice, here understood as not merely an ethical necessity but a metaphysical one.

Martin Buber wondered “whether it not be literally true that God formerly spoke to us and is now silent.” But perhaps silence is the expected response given the record of ethical silence all along in the scriptural narratives. This is the believer’s dilemma, poignantly expressed in Eli Wiesel’s allegorical play, “The Trial of God.” Jewish tradition has historically had to deal with the silence of God more literally because of its lack of power in the societies in which Jews found themselves. But individuals in all times, places, and circumstances have had to deal with what can be called the silence of truth.

Kierkegaard had a different solution to the same realization. He does not refocus on justice and balance but offers, in effect, a response to Job. But Kierkegaard, like the Job author, fails to resolve the dilemma and transfers it to the supposed inadequacy of the human heart:

The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence. The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create silence.

If silence means shutting down power, authority and will in order to allow the voice of conscience and harmony to be heard, then Kierkegaard’s sentiment would inch closer to insight.

But in the end, the lament of the ages is bluntly understood not by the believers but by Nietzsche, no friend of piety, impatient both with nature and a tragic sense of life. The triumph of harmony can only come from within. Inner strength only works for one person at a time. Aspirations to harmony cannot change the “disease” of the world Kierkegaard refers to, nor can it assuage the pain of life.

No wonder Buddhism is dismissively seen by Westerners as a palliative to suffering. Some celebrate its abandoning the quest for metaphysical truth, others its counsel for shaping a mind that harmonizes with the mysterious flow of nature. But the West’s abandonment of the search for truth has not offered the modern world justice nor even pointed to it in abstract. In the West, neither advocates for or against truth have understood what people want.

Only silence is left, the silence of Sujata, Bathsheba, Job, Jesus. Yet they are not silent when we identify with their plight. Rather, the only silence is the silence heard in response to their questions.

Religion and emergence

The history of major religions reveals a pattern of attempting independence from the negative accretions of a previous religion — but falling short.

Two major sets of world religions confirm this pattern: Christianity considers itself the successor of Judaism. Buddhism succeeded Hinduism without intentionally its successor, which it is not. But the original religions are the seedbed and do not disappear. The primordial psychology of the seedbed religion lingers in the new religion. The result is a later extrapolation of the new religion into new cultures, new temperaments, new political and cultural realities. Soon, it, too, either splinters or extends the original “successor” further.

In the new religions, the psychologies differ enough from the seedbed, from the geographic and mental terrain. The trajectories are too dissimilar, the historical circumstances too different — a break occurs.

In the process, Buddhism (but not Jaina) eventually departs India. Ostensibly, Buddhism is not hobbled by Hinduism in its earliest manifestation of simplicity in Theravadan form, where it takes on the character of the South Asian culture and personality. The structure of deities and the cosmogony of beings, however, remains dependent upon Hinduism, as does popularizations of Buddhism. Likewise, while Buddhism rejects the class system or asama of Hinduism, it retains karma and multiple lives. The stories of the past lives of the Buddha resonate with the atmosphere of Hinduism, presenting a seamless psychological succession that in historical terms was not to be fulfilled.

Mahayana, the great splinter of Buddhism, departs Hindu India for Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea, all under many nuanced differences from the Theravadan “lesser vehicle.” Theravada transforms the Buddha’s sangha into a priestly class or ascetic arhat society. The extended cosmogony adds new stages of moral state to the hierarchy of hell-bound, hungry ghosts, and the brutish, adding — of particular importance — the state of Bodhisattva as an angelic accompaniment to the human struggle for salvation.

Christianity (but not Islam) eventually departs the Holy Land. Christianity is hobbled by Judaism in the core definition of deity and being, unable or unwilling to reject the character and concept of Yahweh for a new spirituality. But the God of the Judaic Old Testament having monopolized all notions of theologizing, remains fixed and immovable in Christianity. The compromise of Trinity, especially in the Holy Spirit, becomes itself a source of later disruption and sectarian conflict. The universalism of moral values in Jesus, and the historical (versus the priestly) mission of Jesus cannot sustain itself against the more narrow project of universalizing Yahweh, a project inspired by the uniformity of Roman imperial authority.

The early Christian desert hermits, like the mystics that would appear in medieval and later Europe, attest to the absence of a consistent ethics in the project of philosophizing from religion, of establishing the values within the marrow of society versus the priestly project of hierarchy and sacramentalism, a distinction made by Taoism and in part by later-stage Buddhism, specifically Zen.

As with the historical Buddha, Jesus the founder may not have intended to create a new religion, and did not live long enough to elaborate a spiritual path that also intersects with historical and social circumstances. Before long, the infrastructure of the old and narrow origins in Judaism engulfed the personality of the historical Jesus. The ecclesia of his earliest followers, like the sangha of the Buddha’s, was narrowed from the universal community to the hierarchy of priestly religion and hierarchical moral states. Buddhism in the South had six moral states, Mahayana ten. Christianity needed only three: heaven, purgatory, and hell. Protestantism reduced the stages to two: heaven and hell. The Christian-inspired secular philosophers such as transcendentalists and unitarians, reduced it to one: universal salvation.

Thus the cycle of several thousand years — when Judaism, Shinto, Jaina, and most primordial religions, including the ancient Greek, conceived of death as a vague stage of lingering spirit, a beingness destined to fade and disappear except for memory of the living — spun off into mixtures of folklore and theology. Only the mystics would try to bridge the primordial and the historical with a transcendent insight.

Islam escaped the institution of strict priestly hierarchies and social structures, accepting the cultural wisdom of elders and their consent and input in social and ethical affairs of the community. But not unlike the other scriptural religions of the West, Islam passed from the intuitive vision of a “founder” to a disintegration into sectarianism and authority, with the Sufi mystics preserving the purity of values and religious attitude transcendent but innate within the community. Origins in a bellicose cultural psychology, entwined with geopolitics, overcame the purest conception of Islam — as it did Judaism and Christianity. The legacy broods over systems of ethics and belief even now.

Of the major religions, Taoism thrived in independence from these historical declines through the tradition of its philosophy. Taoism was a philosophical religion, a spiritual philosophy. The character of Taoism reflects the very soil and circumstances of its origins, the historical situation which occasionally, if tragically, is reproduced again and again. An appreciation of Taoism calls for penetrating into these historical circumstances, placing oneself within the philosophical debates of the Warring States era of ancient China — a microcosm of every era everywhere, especially our modern era. The conjunction of thought afforded by Taoism gives meaning to the work of many lives and voices of the past, regardless of the circumstances or traditions into which the sage or saint was born.

The potential of the other world religions to become philosophies or “spiritualities” is undermined by history and authority, by the primordial strife for power endemic in all societies, especially our modern ones, incapable of rescuing basic understandings. A metaphor from nature is apropos: When striking thinkers, sages, and saints, emerge from a world religion, it is not the seed but the flower or fruit we witness. The flower or fruit is the evolved seed that has survived bad accretions of cultural and social soil. The flower or fruit has taken the better part of the seedbed and at last found sunlight, water, and air, those essential elements of nature that the seedbed, with its tumble of primitive instincts and brute willfulness, could not offer.

Prerogative of youth

The prerogative of youth is to dream of adventure and achievement, of embarking on the archetypal quest. Biology plays a role in extending the self from the comfort of childhood survival and nurturing into the realm of reproduction — in this case not necessarily literally (though that is part of youth) but as a re-producing of the self. With a re-created self in the search for identity comes construction of a new mirror for testing the new self, and, turning outwardly, a new lens or scope for viewing the world. Even the scope metaphor fits the quest theme.

Though conditioned in part by biology, the prerogatives of youth are also conditioned by society and culture, so that the identity sought is often bounded by the “heroes” of the popular culture, be they Json, Odysseus, or the latest Hollywood celebrity. These “heroes” are vehicles, either byways or dead ends in the quest. Many youth succumb to or misconstrue the heroes of the day as ends in themselves, and indeed may remain spiritual or psychological dead ends because of their misinterpretation of what the quest is all about.

If taken as byways, however, such stopping points need not be fatal, though they can absorb all of the resources of the questing youth, resulting in an involuntary dead end. Further, there is no knowing whether a byway is a dead end or not. There are no pathways on the sea, and navigating by the stars depends on foreknowledge and clear skies. Hence the angst that pursues the youth whose quest is too ambitious, whose ego is too expansive, whose dream is too literal. The quest may be busy with people, which may obscure the future.

Projecting outward means projecting the existing and growing self into a preexisting natural world, but also into a fixed social world where power and possibilities are historically delineated. These social factors, combined with biological forces that emphasize survival and reproduction — transmuted into the expansion of the ego — make remote the possibility of anything new.

Not something new that is a recombination of factors, for that is always a possibility. A person always lives out a pattern that is set as biological inevitability: birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death. Within these set realities, whatever happens is a response to the parameters, to the quality of experience, within them. The prerogative of youth is to quantify experiences within the parameters, not merely to adjust the quality. Whether this is a folly — this time expended and energy burned for the sake of experience, discovery, or mere experience of quantity — a psychological impact results. The impact is probably determinant of the rest of life, the quality of the rest of life. Whether the experiences involve damaging health, acquiring power, exploiting others, serving a group, or trapping the self in an involuntary conventionality, no one can predict of youth. Yet the result will be seen in retrospect as probable, as likely, as inevitable.

All of this prefaces a reality: that youth are seldom interested in solitude or eremitism. Why should they be? The biological determiner demands a level of competition, either to survive, excel over others, fashion a new and capable and mature self, a functional ego satisfying many impulses, needs, fears, and dreams. Hovering over youth is the cultural and social content through which youth expresses itself and which at the same time youth resents. Youth is presented as in perpetual rebellion, so that even involuntary conformity to limits does not impede tokens and symbols of rebellion. All of this represents engagement, engagement of the self with the world and others, as if nothing else exists but the raging contest of ego and world. Rebellion in this context is not dissent or revolution which has an agenda, but engagement. Yet there is no place to go in rebellion. It is rebellion for its own sake, rebellion against what is, but not rebellion for what is not.

And yet rebellion is the prerogative of youth. It demands comprehension because it is universal and deeply primordial, within the very marrow of the body. It is universal but it is not permanent. The energy slows, congealing here and dissipating there. Youth passes into age. And with age the quest falters, or turns into something else, some new piquancy, some new desire, whether it be desire for power, or a new form of rebellion, a rebellion now against the body’s changes, against the body’s shifting energies.

But that is not what youth cares about. In youth, the self feels both that it can live forever and that it can die tomorrow — neither one matters. What matters is the ongoing, the momentum, the proof and feedback of vitality, of the body crying out for movement, for perpetual motion, for a burning candle, the candle burning at both ends, as Edna St-Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

The youthful sentiment of the poem is unmistakable: that our candle (our lives) burn away anyway and that we youth alone can and ought to seize the power and energy of life in order to make it something joyful, or at least spectacular, regardless of who is watching approvingly or disapprovingly.

Similarly Dylan Thomas in his advice to a dying father, reflects the passion of youth:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas argues that those in life who fail to live fully go gently, quiescently — while those who lived fully must rage against the absurdity of life having to end. It is a philosophical and psychological conundrum of youth’s heart in an older man. An aging man not yet understanding age.

But even centuries ago, these themes were rife. Milton’s Satan epitomizes youth in his wakened desire for independence, for his negative quest, his rebellion, his absolute defiance of authority.

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Satan cannot have a history in Milton; he cannot grow old. But like everyone and everything this Satan, too, will grow old, older still in recognition of the collapse of his rebellious effort, in the boredom and dissipation of its aftermath. Already the biblical Satan — the Genesis serpent versus the Apocalyptic one, the conspirator with God to torment Job — is an old and willful mischief-maker, a liar and sociopath incapable of raising his voice. That will be the fate of Milton’s young rebel.

And the youthful Lord Byron, feverishly engaged in worldly experience, pausing in a moment of anxiety to realize that “solitude should teach us how to die.” He ended his short life with ignominious death in the Greek war of independence against Turkey — dying of infection from a sloppy bleeder. A perpetual youth outstripping his resources, Byron did not realize that solitude should teach us how to live as much as how to die.

But the mistake of the poets is understandable. It is the prerogative of youth.