More than two thousand years ago there was a king obsessed with demonstrating his greatness before other men as tyrants do best, through war and the use of violence. He conquered village after village, subjugating every prince he encountered along the way. His strength and tenacity were admired among all those who knew of his countless victories. Until one day he came across a group of villages that seemed impregnable. The august ruler, worried about experiencing a military failure that would call into question his authority among the foreign princes, sent a sage of his confidence to the presence of Gautama Buddha so that he could offer him his advice. The Buddha, after listening to the messenger and asking him some questions, concluded: “as long as they continue to live in harmony, meet frequently to settle their public affairs, honor and revere their elders, manifest a humble attitude among themselves, help each other and do not promulgate laws that they have not decided among themselves, no one can defeat them, prosperity will be theirs”.[i]
The envoy returned with this terrible answer to his king. However, the monarch was overjoyed. He soon devised the plan: he would send spies and agitators to spread hoaxes, encourage disagreements and stir up disunity. After a few years, the king’s troops were parading, triumphant, along the roads of the once impregnable country of men who had ceased to be united, to solve their problems peacefully and to respect each other.
The citizens of the Western democracies of our time are like the Vajjis[ii] of the Buddhist story offered in the first recitation of the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta: we seem to have forgotten that concord, honesty and respect for civil and human rights are essential to sustain our common present and build a future where ideals such as absolute equality among citizens or the conjunction of individual and collective freedoms cease to be ideals and become reality. The dream of many of the Enlightenment philosophers consisted, precisely, in a universal, peaceful society, where ethnic, religious, cultural and biological differences would be an enriching anecdote in the biography of the individual, not a reason for disintegration. Though, on reflection, something worse is happening to us than to the protagonists of the story, because it is not that we have forgotten some virtues we once possessed, but rather that democratic societies have not assumed the very basic principles that a democratic system needs to be sustained.
Nurturing a democracy is costly. It requires, first, a certain degree of awareness in the citizenry. It must have a sufficient ethical reason where respect for others, linked, in turn, to a tradition, is widespread. Human beings must see each other as such, equal in our humanity and different from each other in the identity that defines us as individual persons. Finally, it is necessary to understand that collective affairs are particular, and a certain projection of some of the individual ones also ends up affecting society. From this primordial awareness, which has not occurred at all in the United States or in any country in Europe, a commitment can then be built that flows from the circumstantiality of the self to common affairs, one where each citizen, depending on his or her circumstances, possesses an active political commitment. And because the social whole is the sum of individuals who make up a society and not an entity that exists by itself, the main vehicle of this collective participation should come about through understanding what the other says, first, and then, through dialogue, embarking on a common and sincere search for truth.
None of these requirements are met. It is possible that they may seem utopian to the hardened reader imbued with a certain cynicism. However, the opposite is true: they represent goals toward which we should be rowing. Leo Tolstoy wrote in his essay The Kingdom of God Is Within You[iii] that the idea of the Good is such a supreme universal, so linked to divinity, that the only aspiration of the human being is to approach it. I imagine it as a limit, as an integral: as we solve it, we complete a sum, although we always leave ourselves a tiny margin of imperfection. The Yásnaya Polyana thinker also wrote that the idea of “humanity” was impossible for the human being, stuck forever in earthly life to what he sees and touches, to ideals and customs that dissociate him from his equals. Of course, I think the opposite: experience conditions us to the extent that we have not developed sufficient intellection to overcome it. Let me give an example: someone who grows up surrounded by a kind of apple tree that offers all green apples could come to affirm that apples are all green, but if this same person were to stop to study the nature of the apple, to elucidate its characteristics and qualities and to deepen his understanding of its essence, he would come to the conclusion that either apples can present other tannins and, at the very least, would not sure that all apples can be green. We call the inquiry that makes it possible to make predictions “science”. When we in the West take pride in our progress, almost all of which is linked to technology and a materialistic outlook, we are defending, at the same time, a ridiculous ideal for other cultures that are also advanced in science and philosophy, such as India or China: a single solution does not always solve a problem, nor is it the right way to reach a certain goal.
Perhaps we should think more about the possibility of paths other than democracy to achieve a better future. Because, after all, what is democracy, if not a convenient distribution of interests among groups of individuals, more or less extensive, who exert a certain influence on the society to which they belong? That is my definition. Democracy, at least the one we have consolidated in Europe and the United States as a legacy of the Enlightenment, is meant to generate social peace on two levels. One: the distribution of interests among groups of influence and power, which in previous times of monarchy, aristocracy and bourgeoisie used to lead to the agitation of the masses, if not to riots. And, two: the one that strikes me most, instilling in the individual, as a citizen, the hope that by giving him the vote he also possesses the voice and the will to decide. But the will is never universal; it depends on our particular degree of understanding of reality[iv], and that “voice” granted is either channeled by means that usually dilute it together with that of many others, breaking its singularity (which happens, for example, when voting) or it is reduced, on the contrary, to legitimize certain group interests, which are presented in the campaign as belonging to the voter to some extent, whether this is true or not. In the end, the democracy that we usually practice is reduced to a very restricted consultation with civil society on the issues that by force of law as a measure of organization of the system or by some private interests are adjudicated out by the groups among which power is shared. It is nothing, perhaps, that other philosophers have not said before, nor is it anything that should be taken for granted.
It is clear, at least to me as a philosopher, that it is impossible to achieve genuine human “progress” without attending to the dimensions that are human. This dimensionality of the human being is its projection by the fact of existing. I am referring to intellectual, religious, political (in terms of building community with his peers), personal development and also material needs, including subsistence. Since the eighteenth century we have progressively forgotten, from Europe to the American continent, that religion is not a drug that draws to fanaticism or impairs the discernment of the person, but rather the opposite: it is the building that guards the opportunity for spirituality, an inclination that is universal to every human being, even among those who say they do not believe in anything. For it is impossible not to believe: the very denial of belief implies belief in non-belief[v]. Each one of us is constantly believing: in the diagnosis of the doctor when we consult him about an ailment, in the word of our son, in the fidelity of the woman we love, in the fact that tomorrow the sun will rise again in the firmament in the east and will say goodbye until the next day in the west according to the direction of the rotation of our planet. Believing is not opposed to reflection and reason, but supports and develops them. If we did not previously believe in the capacity of our intellect to discern and know reality, would we give ourselves to the effort of pursuing knowledge? If Pyrrhonian skepticism has not triumphed, it is because of its extreme position. The same, though with greater intellectual richness, in my view, can be said of Nāgārjuna’s legacy[vi] if taken at face value in its broad depth.
In any case, human societies will have to transcend the democratic system as their knowledge of reality demands a greater commitment to what is just. Where will we advance to? Thought points towards a unified humanity—albeit not globalized—with a more dissolute and transversal government, where conscience prevails over submission to precepts and laws, and in which rulers are not so much in office, with pomp and a capacity to impose on their fellows, but in confidence, their own and, as a result of it, that of others, in their capacity to solve the multitude of challenges that the humanity of the future will have, just as we have in the present one. The question of property would remain adjusted to its natural definition, which is the need to interact with certain “things”, which we call “goods”, because of our characteristics and qualities and our personal circumstances, which are not the same for all of us. The profit motive disappears precisely when we have and transmit a vision of the world with greater ethical knowledge and are trained, work in and contribute to what each needs and believes convenient. Life, in its multiple manifestations, would be the fundamental patrimony that humanity must protect, not because it is rare or exotic, but because it is diverse and extensive, constituting the existential whole that nourishes reality.
Reaching this other system cannot be achieved by means of a giant step, forced and enlarged by the intensity of thought. Once we have seen the projection of where we should be heading as a supposedly intelligent civilization, evolution must emanate from a continuous revision of what is fair, from the progressive knowledge that we must continue to build among all of us. This means that, once again, we must experience incremental improvements from our democratic systems, fleeing from tyranny and destructive oligarchies, which must be observed as past models. To encourage reflection among the population, to return the concept of “citizenship” to its origin, that is to say, to limit ourselves to being human, people with the culture of each place and origin who accept the cultures of others, and vice versa. It will be necessary to defend, from this very moment, the social state and mutual support in a world that is increasingly dissolute, reducing the differences between social groups and to strive, in our particular day to day, to do good and make life simpler and brighter for our fellow men. Finally, it will be to crucial to expand the degree of political participation, looking for ways to redefine the complex issue of representation—with tiny sums, as if we were solving a complex integral, whose variables are peace and harmony.
[i] VA. Mahā-parinibbāṇa Sutta. Translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira and Francis Story, 1998. Open access. Link: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html
[ii] The Vajjis were an Indo-Aryan tribe located in northern India. It was famous for constituting a ganasangha, that is, a type of republic of aristocratic oligarchs who formed the Vajjika League, a confederation of multiple tribes. If I have versioned this story, it is because there is reason for us to feel challenged as Western citizens. The Vajjis defended the traits that united them (origin, customs, etc.) over the differences between the various clans. Is this not the case in a democracy that we consider healthy, as we understand in our time what a democracy should be? Precisely for a democracy to function, two aspects should prevail: one, the reasons for unity over differences; two, universal principles that bind us as human beings, of a nature that is only debatable from a philosophical, ethical perspective, but not in practice, once understood. In the Buddhist text, these two characteristics are attributed to the confederation of the Vajjis, saving the distances between epochs.
[iv] Because, although in the History of Philosophy “will” has been considered a central element, for some thinkers as a quality or even a virtue, for others, more metaphysical, as a kind of “force” or inclination (appealing, perhaps, to the development of Physics and trying to scientify philosophy?), in reality it is not, just as desire is not. The demonstration of why this is so I reserve for future articles and books, since it is extensive and requires express attention. But I would like to provide an outline to try to clarify for the reader who has reached these lines: if will or desire were absolute, universal, would they not consequently condition our criterion in the objects from which both are nourished? I mean, if will and desire were absolute inclinations for the human being, we could fix as objects the known and the unknown. On the other hand, if they are relative and subject to a degree of knowledge of reality, they will also be subject to mental content, to experience and to the interpretation or analysis of reality. The latter is what each one of us observes in our own vital experience as human beings and also in the psychological study of any biological living being that may manifest these capacities. And I give one more example. When I was young, as a student in the Faculty of Sciences, we worked with cell cultures that, theoretically, did not possess visible light receptors. Surprisingly, the cells were able to react to light stimuli and showed preferences for one or another frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum.
[v] Again, a paradox more complex than seems at first sight, although itis fun to elucidate and to demonstrate. I have left it more or less sufficiently developed in the body of the text.
[vi] Nāgārjuna, as one of the main contributors to the Buddhist Middle Way (founder of the Madhyamaka school) contributed, in addition, to the development of logic. In his perception of the sūnyatā (emptiness, voidness), Nāgārjuna upholds the conditionality of all things: nothing in the world has a nature of its own. In this way, knowledge is also called into question, similar to what happened some time earlier with Pyrrhon in Greek thought.