The Spiritual Roots of Civil Society: A Buddhist Perspective
By David R. Loy



Much like today, the emergence of the idea of civil society in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the result of a crisis in social order and a breakdown of existing paradigms of the idea of order. (Seligman) [1]

    Civil society has become an urgent topic, unfortunately. We do not usually notice things until they are broken, and the increasing attention of public leaders and scholars [2] is a sign that ours is in trouble. Everyone seems to agree that a strong civil society is essential for healthy democracy, which would be unremarkable except for the fact that (as we shall see) there is no agreement on what civil society actually is. The unsurprising consequence is that there is also little agreement about what must be done to reinvigorate it.

    The purpose of this paper is to offer a new perspective on the origins and function of civil society, an approach which so far as I know has been overlooked in contemporary discussions. Its modern development has been understood as a reaction to the rise of European nation-states in the seventeenth century, initially around absolute monarchs who weakened diffuse feudal centers of authority by concentrating power into their own hands:

... the transformation and subdivision of the idea of societas civilis was stimulated primarily by a specifically political development: the fear of state despotism and the hope (spawned by the defeat of the British in the American colonies, as well as by the earliest events of the French Revolution) of escaping its clutches. [3]

    Civil society has thus been understood as another result of the secularization which began in the sixteenth century and culminated in the revolutions of the eighteenth century, by enthroning our cherished beliefs in the rights of man and the integrity of individual persons. Elsewhere [4] I have questioned this supposed secularization by arguing that the rapid development of nation-states and corporate capitalism may also be understood in more religious terms, as a change of direction which did not so much supplant our spiritual concerns as pursue them in a this-worldly fashion. The Protestant reformation did not just elevate God and free this world for more material pursuits: the decline of a catholic Church and its ecclesiastical paraphernalia (monasteries, sacraments, pilgrimages, etc.) meant that the social duality between sacred and secular spheres was eliminated (or much reduced) without that resolving our lack.

    The term lack here refers to what, from a Buddhist perspective, can be considered the main problem of our lives: anatta, "no-self." The Buddhist teaching of anatta implies that our most troublesome repression is not sexual wishes, nor even death fears, but awareness of nonself -- the intuition that "I am not real" -- which we become conscious of (the "return of the repressed") as a sense of lack infecting our empty core. It is the deep feeling we all have that "something is wrong with me," that something is missing. The death-repression emphasized by existential psychology transforms the Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown calls an Oedipal project: the attempt to conquer death by becoming the father of oneself, i.e., the creator and sustainer of one's own life. Buddhism merely shifts the emphasis: the Oedipal project is better understood as the attempt of the developing sense-of-self to attain autonomy. It is the quest to deny one's groundlessness by becoming one's own ground.

    Then the Oedipal project derives from our intuition that self-consciousness is not "self-existing" but something ungrounded -- in fact, a mental construct. Consciousness is more like the surface of the sea: dependent on unknown depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself, that is, to make itself real. If the sense-of-self is an always-insecure construct, its efforts to real-ize itself will be attempts to objectify itself in some fashion.

    The consequence of its inevitable failure to do so is that the sense-of-self has, as its inescapable shadow, a sense-of-lack, which it always tries to escape. The return of the repressed in the distorted form of a symptom shows us how to link this basic yet hopeless project with the symbolic ways we try to make ourselves real in the world. We experience this deep sense of lack as the persistent feeling that "there is something wrong with me," but we understand that feeling, and respond to it, in many different ways.

    The problem with our objectifications is that no object can ever satisfy if it is not really an object we want. When we do not understand what is actually motivating us -- because what we think we want is only a symptom of something else (our desire to become real, which is essentially a spiritual yearning) -- we become compulsive.

    Perhaps the most important point to be emphasized right now about this Buddhist approach is that such an understanding of lack straddles our usual distinction between sacred and secular. Their difference is reduced to where we look to resolve our sense of lack; but if that lack is a constant, and if religion is defined as the way we try to resolve it, we can never escape a religious interpretation of the world. Our basic problem is spiritual inasmuch as the sense-of-self's lack of being compels it to seek being one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, whether in religious ways or in "secular" ones. What today we understand as secular projects are just as symptomatic of this spiritual need. Although our lack is a constant, how we have understood it and tried to overcome it have varied greatly throughout history. [5]

    The diminution of Church authority during the Reformation led to a dramatic change in the way our lack was understood, and meant that new ways had to be found to address it. The spiritual concern and energy which had previously been devoted to supporting an ecclesiastical sphere found a new direction in the heightened responsibility of each person for one's own spiritual life and destiny. This also involved increased concern for the worldly conditions which affected that development, for others as well as oneself. One could no longer simply depend upon the established Church to take care of one's lack, especially when the true church was such a hotly contested issue.

    The previous paper I referred to earlier (see footnote 4) looks at how this contributed to the reorganization of political and economic institutions, which eventually took on a life of their own and now subordinate us to their own developmental imperatives. This paper begins by looking at some counter-movements that sought to reform society in a more ostensibly religious direction: so that it would better conform with God's spiritual plan. This eventually led, in particular, to the revolution in mid-seventeenth-century England which culminated in the execution of Charles I and Cromwell's religiously-based Commonwealth (1649-1660). That social ferment was as much religious as political, since it would be anachronistic to distinguish between them. [6] Such radical political transformation became possible only because it was widely understood in millennial terms, as fulfilling Biblical prophecy about the return of Christ and the events necessary to help establish His kingdom on earth.

    Such a religio-political revolution does not fit into the usual "secularizing" understanding of Western historical evolution, so its importance tends to be neglected in favor of the French Revolution, whose leaders exalted Reason (even to the point of deifying it!). But the legacy of its millennial expectations, and the ways those hopes transformed when they were frustrated by the failure of the Commonwealth, have been vitally important for the development of Anglo-American civil society -- and by no coincidence England and the United States are where the distinction between civil society and the state first developed. [7] Hobbes' state of nature is a secularized version of Calvin's "natural man" without God. Socialist critiques of private property originated in allegorical interpretations of Adam's Fall and God's curse upon him. Locke's theory of individual rights is rooted in a Protestant understanding of man's relationship with God. The unique civic society of the United States evolved in large part out of Puritan millennialist ambitions to create another Holy Commonwealth in a new and still pristine promised land.

    In short, English and American civil society has spiritual origins. And I shall argue that those origins survive today as roots still necessary for its nourishment. We cannot understand the development of our civil society without seeing how its current crisis is related to the atrophy of those roots. Does this imply that, in order for civil society to become revitalized, its spiritual dimension needs to be recuperated?


The Origins of Civil Society [8]

    Much of our present confusion about the nature of civil society is due to the fact that its development in the West has been marked by at least three distinct bodies of thought, which offer radically different visions of what it is and should be.

    The classical and medieval traditions generally did not distinguish civil society from politically organized commonwealths. Civilization was possible because people lived in law-governed states which had the power to protect them. Classical Greek philosophy emphasized that the public good was discoverable through public debate and organized by public action. Civic decay was a consequence of private calculation and the pursuit of individual interest. This left no room for an intermediate voluntary sphere between the citizen and the state. Civil society as we usually understand it today, a countervailing force to state coercion, did not exist, for the need of it was not yet recognized. In the first volume of The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper attacked Plato for his "totalitarianism," yet such criticisms are anachronistic: until the modern era the pressing social issue was not protecting subjects from their state, but protecting politically-organized communities from the more immediate threat of barbarism. The problem was perceived as outside, not inside.

    For Plato, political power exists to serve the welfare of the city and its citizens, and this requires firm restraints on the greed and ambition which constantly threaten that welfare. The glue that integrates civil society in his Republic is the power of reason, employed by philosopher-kings educated to discern the truth that alone can organize the world. Democracy, which had condemned his beloved Socrates, was itself condemned by its incompetence, mediocrity and disorder. Political life must be grounded in moral wisdom and a life devoted to the good, which provided a counterweight to the disintegrative pull of personal interests.

    Aristotle was more flexible in his conception of the ideal state, but like Plato he was suspicious of commerce. His teleological metaphysics made him conceive of politics as the moral consummation of all the other, more partial levels of human activity: politics should be morally redemptive. Like Hegel much later, both thinkers agreed that to be a member of a political society involved a life of collective involvement which should transcend private interests, for the state expresses the common moral life of the community. Today we have become more cynical about politics, but our cynicism still reveals, in a disappointed and inverted fashion, those same moral concerns. If our lack is a constant irritant and challenge, the political sphere -- the stage of collective social decision -- cannot be ignored, for no human concern is immune to lack's projection and objectification.

    We find a closer parallel to our times in the pervasive skepticism about politics during the declining fortunes of Hellenistic Greece. As the world outside deteriorated due to greed and rivalry, the Cynics, Epicureans and early Stoics redefined "the good life" in more private terms which offered some protection from a political sphere that less and less reflected Plato's and Aristotle's moral conception of the state. According to Epicurus, we must free ourselves from the prison of public affairs. Politics and civil society are no longer the source of ethical development, and the true self is not revealed in such public activities.

    Cicero's Stoic conception of civil society rested on the universal human capacity for a rationality harmonious with the universe. As the Roman aristocracy degenerated into a group of competing and suspicious cliques, however, Rome became an expansionist war machine controlled by a small oligarchy. Curiously, this concentration of political power had some of the same effect as the rise of absolute rulers in Europe much later: it led to a legally-acknowledged private realm that stood as a counterpart to the polis. The Roman res publica was understood to imply the existence of a res privata. Public law stopped at the doorstep: a private person was distinguished from the public citizen.

    This distinction did not survive Rome's disintegration. What integration did survive was provided by the Church, which was not sympathetic to the humanistic ambitions of the classical world. The optimistic ideal of self-sufficiency -- that people could use their own powers of reason to cooperate and create a civilized society -- was a pagan illusion and prideful error because it did not recognize our dependence on God as the only true source of justice and mercy. The doctrine of original sin led many Church fathers to conclude that an oppressive state was one of the God-given consequences of our fallen nature, not only caused by sin but one of the remedies necessary to control our sinfulness. Humankind could not redeem itself, for it is too depraved to determine or follow moral values by itself.

    The classical veneration of reason yielded to Augustine's unrelenting emphasis on faith and grace. He distinguished the City of Man from the City of God. The "goods" of the earthly city will always be elusive because of our unbalanced appetites, which drive us into a destructive scramble for power and wealth, leading to insecurity and mutual distrust, rebellion, civil war, and servitude. The institutions of the City of Man can have no sustained moral content, so a self-sufficient civil society as we conceive of it today is not possible. In its place is the Church, God's institution which works with the state to promote the salvation of fallen humanity, by correcting error and punishing sin. In a degenerate world of sinful people, coercion is necessary.

    The central aim of most medieval theory was to apply a single Christian ideal to the manifold conditions of life. Since the universe is hierarchical, earthly justice and harmony require human beings to understand and accept their role in God's creation. This left no place for any theory of civil society that could stand independent of theological presuppositions.

    Aquinas broke with this by downplaying the Augustinian implications of Adam's Fall. God's scheme of sin-and-salvation does not obliterate the value of human reason and human affairs. On the contrary, social and political life is fundamental to our condition, which revived the possibility that our own civil efforts could themselves serve moral purposes. Following the tentative steps of Anselm, Aquinas contributed to liberating reason from the requirements of faith, understanding it as the faculty that allows us a limited ability not only to understand but to participate in God's plan for our redemption.

    Luther challenged the hierarchy of the medieval Christian universe. The social division of labor does not imply a hierarchy of dignity or salvation. Differences of occupation among laymen, priests, princes and bishops do not correspond to differences in their Christian status. We are equal before God -- a doctrine which would later reincarnate in secular form as individual human rights. The true church is a "priesthood of all believers" in a community composed of autonomous consciences. Freeing the conscience, and delinking our salvation from obedience to religious authority, created the conditions that would flower into modern individualism.

    At the same time, Luther distinguished this inner life of the free Christian from an outer world of coercion and inequality. This separation between public and private spheres placed matters of conscience outside affairs of state, liberating not only conscience but secular powers from external restraint. "Luther's expulsion of politics from religion served to fortify it in the state" (Ehrenberg 70). He supported the harsh repression of peasant revolts in Germany. What he gave with one hand -- spiritual equality and freedom of conscience -- he took away with the other -- subordinating us no longer to the Church but to secular rulers and the new states that were forming around them...

    At this point in the story, histories of political theory and civil society usually jump to Thomas Hobbes and related attempts to theorize the basis of political authority in the idea of a secular social contract. Contracts imply obligations and therefore the complementary idea of an autonomous individual who is obligated to meet them; both concepts provide a more this-worldly basis for social order. Suddenly, we find ourselves in more familiar and comfortable ground for our political thinking, having escaped the otherworldly preoccupations that obfuscate so much of pre-modern social thought -- or so we like to think. Yet this overlooks the crucial role of new religious ways of thinking in helping to create these novel "secular" understandings of politics and civil society. Rather than being a this-worldly alternative to Christian conceptions, the brave new sociopolitical world of the seventeenth century -- which laid the foundations for our world -- would have been literally unthinkable without those Christian presuppositions.


The Revolutionary Bible

    Sociological and psychological historians have not got very far in explaining why there was so much despair in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, leading some to suicide, some to atheism, some to conversion... Where was certainty to be found? [9]

    Upon what certainty could a new society be founded in this "period of storm and stress seldom equaled and probably never surpassed"? [10] The notion of a social contract, which became popular among intellectuals in the late seventeenth century, meant nothing to the vast numbers of people preoccupied with the no-holds-barred death-grapple between Catholic and Reformed Europe (1618-48). This was probably the most vicious war in European history, because nothing less than our eternal destiny rested on the outcome. For Catholics, the challenge of the Reformers was a direct threat to their project to end lack: God's Church, founded on Peter anointed by Christ. Protestants could no longer rely upon that Church to take care of their lack. "Protestantism retained medieval sin without the medieval insurance policy -- confession and absolution. Men emancipated themselves from priests, but not from the terrors of sin, from the priest internalized -- in their own consciences." [11] The authority of priests and their sacraments had been undermined. Where else could a religious people turn for certainty?

    To the Bible, newly translated and printed. "The Bible was central to all intellectual as well as moral life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." [12] Christopher Hill makes this claim for England, but much of his argument in The English Bible applies to the rest of Protestant Europe as well: for Christian societies in turmoil, lacking any other firm foundation, the Bible, now available cheaply in the vernacular, was widely studied because it was expected to provide solutions for urgent problems -- social ones as well as religious, our distinction between them being anachronistic. For a civilization whose lack was now running rampant, the Bible became essential as the only secure source of wisdom. It was almost universally acknowledged as the Word of God, hence of supreme and incomparable importance: not just a book, then, but our sole access to the Ground of being. For a while, anyway.

The Bible gave confidence and reassurance to men and women who badly needed it. Their times were out of joint; unprecedented things were happening to their world and their lives, apparently beyond human control. Some of the more daring of them came to conceive of solutions which were so novel that they could only be contemplated if they were envisaged as a return to purer Biblical days. (English Bible 41)

    Nothing that we would recognize as a civil society could have developed without a reading public, which presupposed the printing press and spread of literacy. Less noticed is the fact that, for the majority of people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was only one really important book: literally "the Book" (from biblos, Greek for "book"). The Bible was the source of virtually all ideas, since it supplied the basic idiom in which men and women discussed all the questions of their day, issues that would have been dangerous to address in any other way. It was accepted as the ultimate authority on economics and politics as much as on religion and morality.

    For John Milton (1608-1674) the Bible is "that book within whose sacred context all wisdom is enfolded" and his political tracts are as thoroughly Biblical as his religious poetry. This was so typical of the age that even Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), prophet of the secular state, was not immune: 657 citations of Biblical texts have been counted in Leviathan, and a total of 1327 in his six major political works. He denied being an atheist, claiming the authority of Scripture to support the logic of his Leviathan arguments, for "there ought be no power over the consciences of men but of the Word itself" (English Bible 438, 20). Even those who wanted to challenge its influence needed to appropriate the Bible's authority in order to do so!

    Its availability in English was a great encouragement to read, and it was how most children learned to read, for the Bible's many exciting narratives did not need to compete with the novel, which had not yet been invented. Immersed as we are today in print and electronic media, it is difficult for us to appreciate its unchallenged influence as the source of almost all the stories whereby men and women understood their own lives and times.

In the censored society of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England those who most wished to communicate, to discuss, were those who knew their Bible best. The Bible was what they wanted to discuss, for its guidance on the form of worship most pleasing to God in a society which had cast off one form and -- some thought -- not yet finally settled into a better one. Because church and state were one, religion became politics, with the Bible as text book for both. (English Bible 50-51).

    In the fifteenth century merely owning an English Bible had been evidence of heresy, for its inconsistencies and ambiguities opened a Pandora's box. Even if "the rule and canon of faith is Scripture alone" (Milton), Scripture must be interpreted. Carrying the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers to its logical extreme, Milton declared that "Each man is his own arbitrator." In the long run, leaving decisions to individual consciences tended to undermine the authority of the text in favor of human reason and the spiritual "inner light" of believers. Once Bibles became widely available to the laity, so did theological controversy. "Error", wrote Joseph Hall during the reign of Charles I, "that could but creep then [before the Reformation] doth now fly" (English Bible 374-5, 14). The most decisive period was the middle of the seventeenth century, when state censorship and the religious courts collapsed for two decades, leaving no restrictions on free discussion of the Bible, or anything else for that matter. Radical new ideas spread quickly and widely, for printing presses were cheap and portable -- an important factor if freedom of the press is restricted to those who own one.

    With or without restrictions, the problem of error turned out to be insoluble, because the Bible was discovered to be "a huge bran-tub from which anything might be drawn. There are few ideas in whose support a Biblical text cannot be found. Much could be read into and between the lines." In the revolutionary climate of seventeenth-century England it was easy for both conservatives and radicals to quote scripture for their own purposes, due to the basic fact that "all heresy originates from the Bible, because the Bible itself is a compilation, a compromise; orthodoxy changes as it incorporates or over-reacts against a heresy -- which itself originated from the Biblical text" (English Bible 6).

The Bible is one thing in a stable society, with an accepted machinery for controlling its interpretation... But in the turmoil of the seventeenth century, the Bible became a sword to divide, or rather an armoury from which all parties selected weapons to meet their needs ... open to all, even the lower classes, to pillage and utilize. (English Bible 5-6)

    Those who knew their Bible well could find the answers they desired to most questions. One could find defenses of the status quo ("the powers that be are ordained of God", Romans 13:1), but one could also find severe criticisms of kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, I Samuel 8:6-19), defenses of the poor against the rich (Luke 6:20-21, 24; Matthew 19:21-22; Epistle of James 2:5), denunciations of oppression and celebrations of liberation (Exodus 2:7-9, Daniel chs. 9-11). The New Testament, in particular, is full of libertarian ideas which could make a deep impression in a time of social oppression. Unfortunately, the Old Testament seems to take slavery for granted, and also the use of force against recalcitrant heathen; anti-semitism could be justified by Thessalonians 2:14-16 as well as by the Jews' rejection of Christ; and there were many passages to support the control of women by men, the dominion of mankind over all other living things. Yet scripture did not give any clear direction about religious tolerance of nonconformists, although there is much intolerance in the Old Testament (English Bible 66, 155-6, 179, 398-9, 409).

    Unsurprisingly to us, then, but contrary to widespread expectations at the time, the Bible led those who studied it to no agreed political or social philosophy. Instead, it became used as a rag-bag of quotations which could be mined to justify whatever one wanted to do. In the long term, this had the unexpected effect of encouraging men and women to think what they will, by helping to rationalize the new possibilities they "found" within its pages. Trying to adjudicate those different ideas led to new confidence in their own reasoning powers. Paradoxically, this led to the eventual decline of Bibliolatry: "The world the Bible made dethroned the Bible" (English Bible 441). But now we are getting ahead of our story.

    The most popular books were Daniel and especially Revelation, which prophesied a time of great confusion -- the present, obviously -- to be followed by a Christian utopia. Daniel had a vision of four monarchies: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The first three had been overthrown, and the fourth -- the Pope in Rome -- would soon be, initiating a fifth and final monarchy, the Kingdom of God on earth. In Revelation John saw an angel descend from heaven and cast the dragon of this world into a bottomless pit, whereupon Christ would descend to reign over a new heaven and new earth for a thousand years, with his saints beside him. Countless sermons and pamphlets commented on these themes, and, as the Thirty Years War raged ever more chaotically on the continent, the conviction spread that England had been specially ordained by God to defend His cause against the Antichrist, in this final conflict between Light and Darkness.

    The terrible times encouraged this apocalyptic thinking. During the seventeenth century land for the first time began to be widely used as a commodity that could be exploited for profit, and up to one-quarter of it was enclosed for private use. As the custom of community access was replaced by absolute rights of ownership, large numbers of people found themselves jobless and often homeless as well. Economically, the years between 1620 and 1650 were among the worst in English history; poor harvests meant that many did not have enough to eat. What would save them? "It is difficult to exaggerate the extent and strength of millenarian expectations among ordinary people in the 1640s and early 1650s" (Upside Down 96). In 1658 John Bunyan along with many others declared that "the judgment day is at hand."

    Millennialism was not restricted to the lower classes. Tycho Brahe interpreted a new star he discovered in 1572 as a sign of the Second Coming; King James agreed with him. The greatest mathematicians of the time, including Napier and Newton, were preoccupied with trying to extract a precise chronology from the Bible. A consensus emerged that the cycle of events which would lead to the end of the world was likely to begin in the 1650s or, at the latest, in the 1690s; some calculations suggested that 1656 or so would see the end of the Antichrist, who after 1640 was agreed to be the Pope (English Bible 300). Milton confidently awaited "that day when thou the Eternall and shortly-expected King shall open the Clouds to judge the severall Kingdomes of the World [and] shall put an end to all Earthy Tyrannies, proclaiming thy universal and milde Monarchy through Heaven and Earth" (Puritanism 356).

    Karl Marx wrote that Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and the English people "borrowed speech, passions and illusions from the Old Testament". [13] According to Hill, the key to Cromwell's character as leader was the belief that his successes were due to God alone, for he was led by God. Despite his pre-eminent role Cromwell remained uninterested in political theory and organization, not only because he was pragmatic but because he was so religious: he preferred to leave such matters to God. All forms of government are "but a mortal thing," "dross and dung in comparison with Christ." We see this clearly in his role at the crucial turning-point, when the execution of Charles I was proposed in Parliament:

When it was first moved in the House of Commons to proceed capitally against the King, Cromwell stood up and told them "that if any man moved this upon design, he should think him the greatest traitor in the world; but since providence and necessity had cast them upon it, he should pray God to bless their counsels, though he were not provided on the sudden to give them counsel. [14]

    Cromwell's belief that the millennium was imminent, and that God would solve the problems which the Rump parliament had found so intractable, contributed to the final tragedy (or farce) of the Barebones Parliament in 1653, whose inability to agree on a new form of government, in the absence of more direct divine intervention, eventually led to the restoration of Charles II after Cromwell's death.

    Then was the English Revolution a consequence of religious belief or political aspiration? Again, it would be anachronistic to project our distinction between them. "The wrath of God from which some nonconformists decided to flee was demonstrated in the injustice of English society. The millennium, the reign of the saints and the promised land were the names they gave to their hopes for a better society, whether in New or old England" (English Bible 439). Not just a better society: a more spiritual society, because it would (or could) bring about the end of lack. From a lack perspective, our distinction between religious and political aspiration is not obvious or inevitable, but a contingent result of our own social history, which very much includes the failure of the English Commonwealth. What most dreamt of at the time was not just the recovery of social stability -- which offered little except to the elite -- but a new social order that would bring an end to the inchoate sense of lack felt more immediately in those chaotic times.

    My main point in this section is that our Anglo-American civil society originated out of this collective religious concern to reform the state and create a new society which (to use my term) would end our lack. Their millennial aspirations may have been naive, but we mock them at our cost, if (as I will argue later) the problem with our contemporary civil society is linked to the loss of such a religious dimension. In that case, our secular cynicism may need to recover some of their idealism about working together to reduce the objectifications of lack which now endanger our world. Among the Christians who attempted to use Biblical principles for truly radical social transformation, the most important were the Puritans.

    According to William Haller's The Rise of Puritanism, English Puritanism was nothing new but a deep-seated tendency with medieval roots. What we now identify as historical Puritanism was a movement for religious reform that began early in the reign of Elizabeth, due to disappointment over what many saw as her reluctance to complete the reform of Christianity begun by her father, Henry VIII. Puritanism evidently spoke to some profound need in those unstable times: "In little more than a single lifetime it led to the founding of New England and the revolutionizing of English society". According to Haller, Puritanism addressed the psychological problems of a dissatisfied minority by injecting new moral purpose into those who felt lost in moral confusion (5, 213). It did this by offering a persuasive new understanding of what our lack is and how it is to be resolved.

    Henry's reform had left England dangerously divided into a state church headed by the monarch, recusant Catholics who had to worship secretly, and Calvinist divines who criticized the official church as still too ceremonial and ecclesiastical. Nobody believed in toleration: there could only be one true church, and that church should be supported by the state, which was responsible for the Christian salvation of its subjects. Since her subjects could not agree on the true religion, however, Elizabeth's policy was to maintain a semblance of uniformity without wrecking her government. The Puritans were held in check but not crushed; in fact, they thrived. Their ambitions to reconstruct the official church rebuffed, they created instead a new type of spiritual literature which eventually went far beyond traditional religious bounds.

    Puritan sermons and tracts tended to neglect theological abstractions in order to mirror the spiritual stress of the lonely conscience, "to convince the individual of sin in order to persuade him of grace, to make him feel worse in order to make him feel better, to inspire pity and fear in order to purge him of those passions" (Puritanism 6-9, 33). The most important metaphors were life as wayfaring (e.g., Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) and warfaring, the struggle within each of us between good and evil.

    Within each of us? Therein lay the problem. The Puritans were Calvinists, who believed in the predestined salvation of only a small number of souls, an elect chosen by God. Calvinist predestination presupposed universal human depravity: everyone deserves an eternity in hell. This turned out to have important social consequences, by implicitly challenging worldly hierarchy:

The concept of universal depravity, by leveling all superiority not of the spirit, enormously enhanced the self-respect of the ordinary man. If none were righteous, then one man was as good as another. God chose whom he would and the distinctions of this world counted for nothing. The concept of free grace still further heightened his confidence. If the only real aristocracy was the aristocracy created by God, then nothing really counted but character and inner worth. (Puritanism 89)

    Emphasizing an aristocracy of the spirit, over against the "carnal aristocracy" that ruled the world, assumed that salvation would be restricted to a limited number. Whatever we may think of this theologically, [15] it has its attractions -- especially for those who believe they are among that elect. One of the main ways we have always tried to fill up our sense of lack is to become (or convince ourselves that we are) special, and therefore destined for a better fate than others. The Puritan version of this -- to be one of the few regenerated by divine grace -- was especially empowering. "Practical men in great numbers can be persuaded to commit themselves to a fight for a faith and a program when they can be induced to believe in the inevitability of a favorable outcome" (Puritanism 169). Hill makes the same point with explicit reference to Cromwell: "Men who have assurance that they are to inherit heaven, have a way of presently taking possession of the earth... A man who really believed that God had included him among the handful who were saved from eternal damnation rather naturally felt under an obligation to make some voluntary return for this voluntary grace" (God's Englishman 213, 216). If our sense of lack is not so easily overcome, however, the political (and, after the Restoration, commercial) energy of the Puritans may also be explained by their need to continually reassure themselves that they were indeed one of those entitled to a special destiny. Psychologically, such certainty is not something gained once and for all, but a feeling of grace that needs to be renewed, hence requiring active moral perseverance. Puritan conversion was not the end of lack, rather the assurance that one's lack would be ended, although only in the hereafter.

    In the middle of the seventeenth century English Calvinism collapsed, an unexpected reversal that Hill describes as one of the great turning-points in intellectual history (God's Englishman 206). One problem was the obvious failure of many of the "visible elect" to live up to expectations. It has always been difficult to argue that the elect are not saved by their deeds (implied by predestination) without also concluding that they cannot be damned for their deeds (implying antinomianism, which made it difficult to resist temptation). There was also the unseemly haste with which some leaders of the nonconformist movement returned to the established church after the Restoration.

    The basic problem was more theological than carnal, however. The assumption that an omniscient and omnipotent God has from the beginning of history condemned the great mass of humankind to an eternity of torment became increasingly unacceptable. "Orthodox Calvinism leveled all men under the law, made all equal in their title to grace, and then denied to most all prospect of realizing their hopes. It made the individual experience of God in the soul all-important, enormously stimulating individual spiritual experience, and then denied any freedom to the individual will" (Puritanism 193). Instead of emphasizing the many who could not be saved, preachers focused on exposing everyone to God's covenant of grace; yet such efforts contradicted their theology, by acting as if every sinner could be converted into one of the saints. It was easy to draw the heretical inference that His grace was available to all who did not reject it, which also encouraged belief in the free will that made the moral efforts to deserve His grace. "The way was opened to a world in which the protestant ethic, with its emphasis on effort and will-power, survived without the predestinarian theology which had originally accompanied it" (Tinker 345).

What the preachers as a whole believed was that heresy and schism should be firmly suppressed. But what they taught was that any man might be a saint and that the mark of a saint was that he obeyed his conscience at any cost... The ultimate effect ... was to encourage in their followers the habit of going each his own way toward heaven and the notion that it was every man's native right to save himself or not in his own way without interference from anybody. From the very beginning of the movement, therefore, heresy and schism dogged the steps of the Puritan reformers, and in the very day of victory, when prelacy lay overthrown, brought their schemes for the godly Utopia to confusion. (Puritanism 173-4).

    Conscience, the voice of God in one's soul, became difficult to distinguish from reason, increasingly seen as necessary to understand the true meaning of God's voice in the soul as well as God's Word in the Bible. The influential Satanae Strategemata of Jacobus Acontius (English trans. 1648) argued for two fundamental principles which appealed less to biblical authority than to reason and common observation of human behavior: unless we want to yield to Satan, nothing -- learning, tradition, the church, nor any other authority -- should be allowed to take precedence over conscience, the voice of God within us; and secondly, no man is immune from error. John Goodwin, who helped to rally the defense of London against advancing royalists during the civil war, came to the radical conclusion that redemption from sin was manifested not by infallible knowledge or absolute righteousness but by our ceaseless efforts to learn more truth and to live more like the son of God. This also had political implications: like almost everyone else Goodwin conceded that kings were divinely appointed, but he argued that in order for justice to prevail the exercise of their authority must be based on discussion and agreement, and should be obeyed only in the light of individual judgment and conscience (Puritanism 196, 200).

    Baptists were among the first to draw the obvious religious conclusions (retrospectively obvious to us, that is) and advance a claim for general toleration of nonconformity. They conceded the duty of obedience to civil laws, but since all of us are spiritually equal all must be left free to understand the truth for themselves and to convert others as best they could (Puritanism 205). This way led to the future, although few could see it at the time, despite the fact that by the end of the century the religiosity of the English people had become so intense and so varied that no church could have enforced any uniformity.

    One of the main reasons toleration became inevitable was the Bible itself. If its own attitude towards religious toleration was unclear -- well, that just highlighted the problem. Milton and most other radicals had believed that once an English Bible was widely available it would become the basis for reconstructing social norms and institutions. Yet intense and uncensored discussion in the 1640s and 1650s led to no agreement on what exactly the Bible meant, even among the godly (English Bible 420-1).

    The failure of confident predictions about the approaching millennium left even fervent believers skeptical and weary. Even on questions of church government -- bishops or presbyters? state church or voluntary congregations? ordination or lay preaching? tithes or voluntary support? -- the Bible produced no universally accepted solutions. Once it had been demonstrated that you could prove almost anything from it, the Bible lost its authority as the prime source of political ideas; and once churchly authority could not be enforced, each was free to believe what he wanted. Intellectual and congregational fragmentation was inevitable.

    One response was to allegorize the Scriptures, and to stress the spirit within rather than the letter of the Bible -- a spirit which became increasingly necessary to interpret God's ambiguous Word. Quakers and many others found an alternative authority in our "inner light." The Digger Gerrard Winstanley declared that important questions about our freedom were not to be answered by any Biblical text but by the light "which dwells in every man's heart and by which he was made... We must throw off the tyranny of the Bible." The Ranter Jacob Bauthumley opined that Scripture was no better "than any other writings of good men" and added: "The Bible without is but a shadow of the Bible which is within." (English Bible 224, 234).

    The grace provided by that inner light was what enabled believers to understand the true meaning of the scriptures; but since even the godly continued to disagree, reason also needed to be employed to help adjudicate arguments and discriminate truth from falsity: eventually that role became so important it supplanted other aspects of the inner light. At first understood in a more spiritual way, as a function given to us by the grace of God, reason gradually became more calculative and instrumental, as we will see later.

    The heretical attitudes of Winstanley and Bauthumley became more widespread after the failure of the Commonwealth, which also severely damaged the acceptance of the Bible as an infallible text that only needed to be applied. "In so far as the Biblical Revolution was defeated, the Bible shared this defeat" (English Bible 40). But this did not mean a return to the orthodoxy that had existed before the vernacular Bible became available. Hill concludes his study by praising the many scholars and radicals "whose passionate desire to make sense of the Bible led them into the critical activity which ultimately dethroned it":

To the extent that England ultimately became a democracy it owes much to the discussions initiated by these scholars -- discussions whose ironical effect was in the long run to force men and women to rely on their own intelligence rather than on citations from a holy text. They cut off the branch on which they sat, letting in more light, to the great advantage of those who followed them. (English Bible 441, 442)

    This too had unexpected political implications. The decline of Biblical authority undermined the Divine Right of Kings and the divine right of the clergy to collect tithes, "which did not mean that kings ceased to rule or tithes to be collected: it meant that different arguments had to be found to defend them. And in the long run these arguments were open to rational criticism" (English Bible 431).

    In the long run. After the Restoration in 1660 most nonconformists decided that Christ's kingdom was not of this world. The Quakers, for example, who in the 1650s had been notoriously belligerent in calling on Cromwell to fight against continental Catholics, became pacifist. Secular powers now must be obeyed except when their demands conflicted with God's, in which case resistance should be passive. Nonconformists accepted their exclusion from political life and turned their attention to commerce and quietist religion. The Biblical solution to our lack -- the infallible Word of God as our mode of access to His Being, and the attempt to help establish its Kingdom of Heaven on earth -- had failed. People began to look for answers elsewhere. Religious toleration became acceptable because for the first time religious commitment became a private matter. It became a private matter because it was no longer the ultimate issue.

    The government of Charles II was preoccupied with avoiding the discontent that severe religious persecution had produced earlier. A compromise evolved because the two spheres split: people became free to worship as they wished, and an increasingly secular state became free to do whatever it wanted, without troublesome religious interference or troublesome responsibility for the salvation of its subjects' souls. An important freedom was gained, but at a cost: the loss of the state's moral responsibility has also been the loss of its moral accountability to anything "higher" than itself. Among individuals, tolerance became the norm, but at the price of our becoming "morally thin": as our chief social virtue today, such tolerance effectively "displaces morality" by "asking you to inhabit your own moral convictions loosely and be ready to withdraw from them whenever pursuing them would impinge on the activities and choices of others." [16] In other words, we now have the right to express our religious convictions as long as we do not act upon them in ways that affect other people -- leaving the sphere of social interaction religiously and morally neutral.

    As this suggests, the failed religious revolution in seventeenth-century England left a mixed legacy. Stuart monarchy was restored, although in a weakened condition that survived only for a few decades before the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-89 imported a more protestant lineage that accepted more limited powers. Parliament, now the deciding force, initiated the path toward an increasingly representative democracy. We tend to view the French Revolution as the prototype for radical social change, but the English were in the first in modern times to execute a ruling king, henceforth a possibility that other rulers and their subjects could never forget.

    In another way too, the failure of the Commonwealth and the Barebones Parliament has been instructive. Since then we have learned again and again that societies cannot be made just simply by replacing one ruler with another -- and this problem is more than the obvious fact that even well-intended people can disagree about what should replace a bad government. The English Revolution was millennial because people expected it to bring about the end of lack, but our lack cannot be solved in such a way. What lesson can we draw from this? That our lack is not something which can be addressed collectively? Yes and no. From a Buddhist perspective, our lack is a spiritual (or existential) problem because resolving it requires personal effort to transform one's greed, ill-will and delusion into generosity, compassion and wisdom. Such personal transformation cannot be legislated or conditioned into us from outside. This important realization is the foundation of our religious freedom and the separation of church from state.

    But that is not all we can learn from England's Puritan Revolution. Its enthusiasm fed on the Protestant Reformation but became something quite original: a concerted effort by people who tried to reform their own unjust government in order to make a better society. [17] We can focus on the utopian millennialism, or we can focus on their challenge to the entrenched greed, privilege, and violence of the state. If we focus on the latter, we see the origin of Anglo-American civil society in the religious concerns that brought people together to work for a vision greater than their own personal gain. Yes, they were deluded to expect a Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and in the end that naivete was fatal to their hopes, as they expected too much from God's intervention and not enough from their own. As long as there is lack, human beings will never be able to create a utopia. Yet (to express it in lack terms) I think we today need to rediscover something that their spiritual preoccupations enabled them to see: that our lack is not only a personal problem (due to my lack of money, fame, etc., as we now commonly understand it), but something that often takes collective form in social and political institutions. When it does, those structures need to be resisted and transformed.


The Biblical Foundations of Political Theory

The civil war of the seventeenth century ... has never been concluded. (T. S. Eliot, Milton)

    The Bible did more than encourage millennialism. When the civil war began, the case against royal absolutism was most effectively presented by Henry Parker, in a very influential tract which "showed how impossible it was to keep spiritual warfare within spiritual bounds." Parker argued that whenever the existing laws of the state interfere with prosecuting the war against the evil one, the Puritan spirit must acknowledge the higher law of conscience. That law now justified parliament to act independently, and even to oppose the crown's commands. Parker supported this by basing a political theory of social contract upon the Puritan myth of the fall of man and his eternal struggle with Satan. Before his Fall Adam had needed no governor but conscience, but afterwards he became so depraved that it was necessary to agree on a temporal ruler. When, however, those rulers themselves became tyrannical, the law of nature (to protect oneself) began to operate again and found a remedy in parliament, which expressed the people's will (Puritanism 365-8).

    According to Christopher Hill, all serious English political theory dates from the middle of the seventeenth century (English Bible 415), which is when critical and radical social attitudes first gained the freedom to develop alongside their more conservative counterparts. Modern political philosophy is often understood to begin with Thomas Hobbes' social contract theory in the Leviathan (1651), which offered a closely-argued secular alternative to divinely-organized hierarchies, including the divine right of kings and popes. The influence of Henry Parker, above, suggests that the line between sacred and secular approaches is less clear than we usually suppose, by offering what to us seems an odd mixture: a social contract deriving from Adam's Fall. Yet it was not so odd to Parker's contemporaries, for whom it served an important role in justifying resistance against the King. Nor should we dismiss it as merely a temporary or intermediate position in the development of a truly secular politics. In this section we will see that the political categories which continue to determine our thinking today are another legacy of the Bible and the spiritual preoccupations of those who turned to it for guidance. The political alternatives that still preoccupy us are grounded in contested notions of our human nature -- notions derived from Biblical debates.

    Luther had supported the repression of German peasant revolts because he feared what the peasants would get up to once they were free to do what they will. According to Henry Parker, "man being depraved by the Fall of Adam grew so untame and uncivil a creature that the law of God written in his breast was not sufficient to restrain him from mischief or to make him sociable." Many others traced our depraved nature back to the Fall. Sir Robert Filmer argued that "a natural freedom of mankind cannot be supposed without a denial of the creation of Adam". It was a strong argument for rule by the better sort, and that better sort agreed with Crashaw that "the greater part [of people] generally is the worst part". Control by authorities was necessary, for as Pym put it "if you take away the law, all things will fall into a confusion, every man will become a law to himself, which in the depraved condition of human nature must need produce many great enormities" (Upside Down 157, 159). The radical antinomian William Walwyn was warned by seven nonconformist ministers that "surely a natural and complete freedom from all sorrows and troubles was fit for man only before he had sinned and not since. Let them look for their portion in this life that know no better, and their kingdom in this world that believe no other", for evidently those who do know better will wait with faith, patience and self-denial for their reward in the world to come. [18] Many agreed with Milton that the elect could be freed from all restraint, which needed to be applied only to the unregenerate, but it was a short step to Hobbes' view that the function of government is to restrain the depravity natural to us all.

    For conservatives, who naturally included those with property to defend, the Fall could not be undone: Adam's sin had permanently affected human nature, for it had become an inherited characteristic transmitted by our sexual propagation. Evil is something that lurks in all our hearts, always ready to come out if we relax our grip. Calvin had encouraged the poor to endure their sufferings patiently, since their burden is imposed by God for their sins. The social consequence was to preserve property in the hands of those to whom God had given it. By what right can we sinners challenge His disposition?

    On the other side were Ranters, Levellers, Familists, Diggers and many other radical groups who emerged from the debates that occurred when censorship was relaxed. Among the most remarkable of them was a Digger whose forgotten (or censored) writings are once again available to us, thanks largely to the efforts of Christopher Hill: Gerrard Winstanley. Winstanley read the Bible rather differently from Filmer and Pym, and came to very different conclusions about our human nature, views which rejected inherited sin and the economic inequality that such sin was used to justify.

    According to Robert Kenney, Winstanley's final pamphlet Law of Freedom in a Platform "was the first serious and sober attempt in the English language to restructure the whole of society along avowedly radical lines." [19] For Winstanley, it was not the Fall that caused private property but private property that caused our Fall. Adam symbolizes the power of covetousness. Men began to fall when self-love arose. "When mankind began to quarrel about the earth, and some would have all and shut out others, forcing them to be servants; this was man's fall" (Upside Down 163). This implied a more allegorical interpretation of God's inheritable curse on Adam when he was expelled from the Garden:

the power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the swords; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer, too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land. (Upside Down 132-133)

    Again, this fable of lost grace made the Fall as much political as religious in its implications. Like many others before and after him, Winstanley appealed to the innocence of children, not yet corrupted by the world: "Look upon a child that is new-born, or till he grows up to some few years; he is innocent, harmless, humble, patient, gentle, easy to be entreated, not envious." The Fall happens when we surrender to covetousness in a competitive world. But this is not inevitable, or necessarily permanent. Against it, Winstanley argued that the "poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man" and "true freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth." He had a vision in which he was called upon to announce to the world that "the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons" (Upside Down 391, 133, 112).

    This metaphorical understanding of the Bible included a metaphorical understanding of Christ's return. In 1648 Winstanley declared the salvation of all mankind, not by a physical descent of Christ from the heavens but by His resurrection within each person: "Your Saviour must be a power within you, to deliver you from that bondage within; the outward Christ or the outward God are but men [i.e., not divine] saviours." Those who work and eat together in a communal cultivation of the commons do thereby join hands with Christ to lift up the creation from bondage and restore all things from Adam's curse. True freedom is found in a community of spirit which shares the earthly treasury, "and this is Christ the true man-child spread abroad in the creation, restoring all things unto himself." Since sin did not cause property but vice-versa, only abolishing private property can get rid of the coercive state, which exists to protect property, and the coercive church, which emphasizes our sinfulness to the same effect. In an overpopulated land where enclosures were destroying the livelihood of many, this was a hot topic. Winstanley believed that Christ rising in all men and women would convince even the rich that cooperation and mutual help are natural (notice that word again), and that everyone would gain from establishing communal property (Upside Down 141, 392).

    Winstanley eventually came to prefer the word Reason in place of God, "because I have been held in darkness by that word, as I see many people are." "In the beginning of time the great creator, Reason, made the earth to be a common treasury, to preserve beasts, birds, fishes and man, the lord that was to govern this creation", but then "selfish imaginations ... did set up one man to teach and rule over another" and thus "man was brought into bondage, and became a greater slave to such of his own kind than the beasts of the field were to him."

There is no man or woman needs to go to Rome nor to hell below ground, as some talk, to find the Pope, Devil, Beast or power of darkness; neither to go up to heaven above the skies to find Christ the word of life. For both these powers are to be felt within a man, fighting against each other. (Upside Down 141, 132, 143).

    Winstanley used this new understanding to transform Joachim of Fiore's apocalyptic vision of the three ages (of the Father, Son, and Spirit) into a theology of reason that established democracy. God was equated with Reason, and Reason with the law of the universe. In the third age which was now beginning, "the Lord himself, who is the Eternal Gospel, doth manifest himself to rule in the flesh of sons and daughters." Our hearts are returning to the Reason which pervades the cosmos, to "that spiritual power that guides all men's reasoning in right order to a right end." Every man subject to Reason's law becomes a son of God. He no longer "looks upon a God and a ruler without him, as the beast of the field does," for one's ruler is now found within. The Digger's aim was not just to remove "the Norman Yoke" and recover more ancient customs, but to restore this "pure law of righteousness before the Fall" (Upside Down 132, 148, 134).

    From a Buddhist perspective, Winstanley's critique is perceptive in identifying the basic issue as our "selfish imaginations." The problem is not that we are naturally competitive, but that we are deceived by the way our minds work: "Imagination fears where no fear is: he rises up to destroy others, for fear lest others destroy him". Imagination "fills you with fears, doubts, troubles, evil surmisings and grudges, he it is that stirs up wars and divisions, he makes you lust after everything you see or hear of" (in Upside Down 389, 143). [20]

    The corrective to such imaginings is Reason, which for Winstanley is finally nothing other than Love, Christ resurrected in us His sons and daughters. Today, however, our conception of reason is much closer to Hobbes': the faculty of calculation, "nothing but reckoning (that is adding and subtracting)" (in Upside Down 393).

    As this suggests, the contrast between Winstanley and Hobbes is instructive. For Hobbes, a truly civil society could not exist without a coercive state, since such a state is the only remedy to our perpetual desire for ever-greater power. Due to our insecurity, we can never have enough: attaining something is only a spur to seeking something else. We are motivated by:

a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. [21]

    This need to accumulate ever more power is our natural condition, intrinsic to the state of nature before a political solution. "In Hobbes's theory, nature replaces sin and depravity as the cause of humankind's ruin and the turn toward the state" (Ehrenberg 71).

    A civil society becomes possible only with the establishment of a Leviathan or "mortal God" whose absolute sovereignty subsumes all other sources of power. Hobbes' deductive rationalism enabled him to construct a theory of the state which rested on a theory of human psychology that ignored revelation, the divine right of kings and all other traditional arguments. Neither rights nor ethics exists before the state exists to enforce the sovereign's will. The atomized individuals that comprise such a civil society are linked together only by agreements which they enter into as rational and self-interested beings. These individuals are "owners" of themselves rather than members of larger communities. The "common good" can mean nothing except the sum of individual interests. Constituted only by state coercion and protection, society is an artificial network existing only to protect property and maintain an orderly economy. Contrary to Winstanley's spiritual vision of Reason as that which overcomes our covetous imaginations, reason for Hobbes is not a capacity that harmonizes or integrates our interests: it divides us because it is yoked to our competitive pursuit of our own individual concerns (Ehrenberg 70-73, 77-79).

    Although Winstanley's vision is more attractive to Buddhists, this approach marked Hobbes as the man of the future, to be reincarnated in the philosophy of David Hume, in the economics of Adam Smith, and in their successors down to the cheerleaders of neo-liberal globalization today.

    Does this mean that Winstanley's religious understanding of property and society has been replaced by more secular contract approaches that better acknowledge our individual motivations? The contrast between the two is not so simple. Hobbes did not construct his understanding of human nature from scratch, in an intellectual vacuum. His philosophy is a secularized version of the Christian (especially the Protestant) understanding of our nature after the Fall. Hobbes' man in nature is Calvin's unregenerate natural man without God: a lonely individual dominated by evil, selfish passions. "Protestantism relied on the sense of guilt, of sin, to internalize an ethic of effort, thrift, industry. Hobbes hoped to achieve the same ends by an appeal to rational science, calculation of profit and loss, expediency, utility: not fear of hell but fear of social disorder" (Upside Down 388). According to this tradition, our lack is ineradicable because it is built into us. Whether it is due to Adam's inherited sin or evolutionary factors that sociobiology discovers, all we can do is strive to control it.

    On the other side, the spiritual perspective expressed by Winstanley (and others in his day) has also reincarnated in more secular forms: most of all in socialism and the social-democratic political traditions. This sees our lack as a function of economic exploitation and other social oppression. According to Rousseau, man is naturally good but is made wicked by his institutions. For Marx and Engels, man is born free but everywhere finds himself in chains.

    There are many other versions of this claim, down to the "bleeding heart liberal" stereotype that all bad behavior is due to poor socialization. As Lewis Mumford put it, such "progressives" believe that human nature is deflected from its natural goodness by external circumstances beyond one's control. "Having no sense of sin, they discounted inherent obstacles to moral development and therefore could not grasp the need for a 'form-giving discipline of the personality.'" [22] In Winstanley's day the better sort were afraid of the antinomianism this seems to encourage ("I myself am without sin, so I can do whatever I will"). Today a consumerist version of antinomianism ("since nothing is wrong with me, I will consume anything I can afford") has become not only socially acceptable but necessary to keep the economy growing (and growth is necessary to keep it from collapsing).

    From a lack point of view, however, antinomianism of either sort is wrong, not so much for moral reasons but because it is a delusion to think that "I have no lack, so I can do whatever I want." If social oppression were the only source of our lack, removing that external oppression should remove our lack; it doesn't. Moreover, an unacknowledged lack is more dangerous than a conscious sense of lack, because it is more likely to be projected in a fashion resistant to our understanding. Although lack does become collectively objectified into oppressive institutions, those institutions are not themselves the source of our lack. That is why violent political revolutions always seem to fail, despite intentions that are often good. For Buddhism, our sense of lack ultimately derives from our lack of self-being and our inability to cope with that. There is good reason to fear the antinomianism of one's neighbor, even if we are not afraid of our own: removing the chains that restrict our liberty can allow our lack to express itself in some of the very ugly ways we read about daily in the newspapers.

    If most of this sounds familiar, that's because it is: this debate about the source of our lack, which originated in seventeenth-century controversies about the Fall and how Adam's curse may be rectified, continues in contemporary arguments between conservatives and liberals, the right and the left of an increasingly narrow and sterile political spectrum. Can remembering its source and recognizing this as a spiritual issue help us to escape the impasse between them? The problem is not merely a political one about the proper relationship between individuals and the state. Inescapably, the issue is as much religious, for political perspectives wittingly or unwittingly presuppose an answer to the fundamental question: what is our lack, and how is it to be overcome? Without an answer to that spiritual question, we cannot really know how society should be organized. We can ignore that basic issue only by falling back into automatized and polarized understandings whose origins remain unknown to us...

    From a Buddhist perspective, Winstanley's understanding is more subtle than many of the more secular critics who succeeded him. Our Fall is both objective and subjective. Unequal and oppressive social relations are maintained by coercion. But that coercion could not be effective without the cooperation of our own "selfish imaginations." The lack that makes us unhappy is found both inside and outside.

    Then any solution must address both, something that a socially-engaged Buddhism is well equipped to do. Buddhism begins as a personal path that works to transform our own greed, ill-will and delusion into generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. But to overcome one's own dukkha is to become more aware of the dukkha maintained by unjust and unnecessary social arrangements. To overcome that institutionalized dukkha, we need to work collectively. So we need to avoid two extremes. One is a Buddhism that remains preoccupied only with one's own awakening and personal liberation. The other is a socially-preoccupied Buddhism that loses its roots in personal transformation, because it identifies too much with a "progressive" understanding of our lack as due mainly to social oppression. The challenge today is integrating these two concerns.


Commercial Society

    Although Hobbes' pessimistic view of human nature still prevails in many conservative circles, his conclusions about the need for absolute state power held little attraction for the English gentry struggling against would-be absolute rulers. They found a more acceptable perspective in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690), which argued that the chief end of human association is to defend private property. Contrary to Hobbes, our rights to freedom, property, labor and exchange are not a function of the social contract; they already existed in the state of nature, which means an absolutist state is not necessary to establish them. Then why do we give up some of our freedom by entering into a social contract? Because in the state of nature "the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others."

    As with Hobbes, however, any notion of a common good is emptied by Locke's concern to protect personal interest, especially property. The state exists to guarantee the maximum possible liberty to individuals -- that is, to self-interested proprietors; "individual interest was always clear and compelling in Locke's thinking, while common matters were derivative, thin, and inconsequential at best" (Ehrenberg 87).

    If that looks familiar, it is because this approach was also attractive to gentry in the American colonies struggling to gain independence and establish a republic. Their constitutional decision to separate church from state does not mean that Locke's perspective on government was secular. Despite his debt to the natural-law tradition, Locke's understanding of individual rights remained grounded in a religious vision, in "a specific Christian, if not Calvinist, reading of man's relation with God ... itself rooted in a theological matrix -- rooted, in fact, in the medieval Christian tradition of right reason and Christian Revelation" (Seligman 22). God survives on every other page of the Second Treatise because Locke's theory depends on Him for transcendental validation. There is no worldly authority that is intrinsically legitimate, for all authority is ultimately derived from God:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker -- all servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by His order, and about His business -- they are His property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during His, not one another's pleasure, and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. (Second Treatise, Book II, section 6)

    Our independence and equality derive from the fact that we are not only God's workmanship but continue to be His property: an association that serves to sanctify property. Our existence remains rooted in a theological understanding of the cosmos that is necessary to justify our calling and our reason. "What is Calvinist in this reading is precisely the validation of this-worldly affairs and of the reason that governs them, in transcendent terms" (Seligman 24). Our supposedly secular affairs are validated by their role within a religious soteriology. God places us on this earth and guarantees that by obediently following our calling and employing our reason, our lack will be resolved.

    Again, this transcendental precondition of civil society was not merely a short-lived relic of some premodern political understanding. Internalized, it became essential to the vision of civil society that developed in America, for "if the Calvinist community of saints was no longer a viable social model by the end of the seventeenth century, a community of individualized moral agents pursuing the social good in conformity to the 'will of God' definitely was, at least in John Locke's vision of civil society." In the next section we shall see "just how central this internalization of the salvational doctrine of ascetic Protestantism was to the origin and development of the civil society tradition in the United States" (Seligman 25).

    Hobbes' Leviathan had attempted to combine two inconsistent social tendencies: community bonds (to be fused in the absolute power of a sovereign) and increasing individualism, which makes each person an "owner" of himself or herself in an atomized society. The emphasis on ownership relations became central in Locke, and set the trajectory for modern social relations -- a trajectory whose agenda still drives us today, in the commodification that economic globalization continues to extend to all corners of the earth and all aspects of human life. But Locke's transcendent method for grounding civil society became intellectually questionable as Deism distanced God ever further from human affairs. The commercial relationships that Locke emphasized needed to be justified in a more this-worldly fashion that disengaged our moral concerns from theology. If the validation could no longer be found outside, it would have to be found somewhere inside us, in an inner-worldliness that may or may not actually serve the unifying role we seek from it.

    More than ever before, this emphasized the distinction between one's public role and private life. When the source of morality and human bonds lay beyond this world, in some transcendent vision of the social order, their distinction was largely irrelevant for living a good life. When the moral basis of society must be located in this world, however, the distinction between public and private, between the individual and society, becomes the fundamental tension that must somehow be resolved in order to have a truly civil society (Seligman 24). This is still our problem with civil society, because that tension between individual freedom and the common good has never been resolved. Market relations emphasize self-interested freedom often at the price of any common good; largely in reaction to that, fascist and state socialist regimes emphasized what they defined as the common good, at the price of individual liberty to define and pursue one's own good. The political history of the twentieth century is a story of their failure, but we have so far been unable to discover any other social glue to replace the unifying moral bond that God provided.

    One notable attempt was made by the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, which tried to revive the classical notion of human interaction as itself an ethical sphere of development. Emphasizing property relations, as Locke had done, made market exchange a neutral arena of conduct, but in fact markets are inescapably moral in their effects on participants. Humans do not become fully human in isolation; our capacities, including our ethical qualities and intellectual abilities, develop only in our social relationships.

    The strongest case for this was made by Adam Ferguson in An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), which discovers the roots of human sociability (and thus civil society) in our general capacity to see the world through someone else's eyes and put ourselves in another's place. Property and self-interest are an unsatisfactory explanation for social bonds, for people are often motivated by generosity, altruism and group solidarity. Above all else, we are moral creatures: individual competition and instrumental reason cannot by themselves provide us with a truly civilized life. Innate sociability is what enables us to live with others. We naturally want to help them and they naturally want to help us, which leads to mutual benefit. Although selfishness often divides us, there is nonetheless a stronger "habit of the soul by which we consider ourselves as but a part of some beloved community, and as but individual members of some society, whose general welfare is to us the supreme object of zeal, and the great rule of our conduct." [23]

    Ferguson was skeptical of social-contract theories and refused to speculate on a prepolitical state of nature. It makes no sense to draw social conclusions from a time when humans were without social bonds, for without those we are not human. We are born into civil society and cannot conceive of ourselves without it.

    This approach is consistent with contemporary social psychology, which since George Herbert Mead has emphasized how our sense of self forms in our relationship with others. It is also is attractive to Buddhism, since the Buddhist refutation of all self-existing individuality similarly emphasizes our interdependence. As expressed in the Hua-yen metaphor of Indra's net, everything (including each of us) is empty of self-existence because each "hollow" node of Indra's infinite web reflects all the other nodes; I have no life apart from those other nodes, being both their cause and their effect.

    So there may be much in Ferguson and the Scottish school that can be recovered; but in its day this sort of philosophical anthropology, unsupported by any transcendent grounding, turned out to be a fragile synthesis that could not resist the rapid growth of a new economy based on individual self-interest, accompanied by the spread of a more calculative and instrumental understanding of our rationality. Despite his firm belief that "bands of affection" were the only basis for a durable civil society, Ferguson saw that such moral ties would not be able to withstand the pressure of markets and their commodification of human relations.

    An instrumental understanding of rationality had become irresistible after David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), which sharply distinguishes what is from what ought to be. This amounted to an attack on the moral sentiments and innate human benevolence that Ferguson would use to found his concept of civil society. Hume posited a strict "boundary" between what reason could ascertain and what motivated human action, which was our personal "sentiments and affections." Although they could work together they could never join together: reasoning has no role in evaluating our motivations, for those are determined by our passions, which themselves have no knowledge of any universal truth about what "should be". "Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our Reason." [24]

    This denied the possibility of any common good. Anything we consider as moral has no foundation in reason, so a common good cannot exist except as the sum of individual goods based on our own individual preferences. The only role for reason is an instrumental one, to help us identify our interests and show us the best way to satisfy them. Transcendent morality and universal benevolence are replaced by habit and empirical experience as the criterion of truth. This philosophically grounds the speculations of Hobbes and Locke: civil society is nothing more than a conventional arrangement for pursuing our personal goals (Seligman 37-9).

    The power of reasoning that Aquinas had tentatively liberated from theological demands (because confident that it would support such beliefs), and Reason "the great creator" for Winstanley, become unrecognizable in Hume's narrowed calculative understanding, which today has become our collective understanding of reason: it is something we use to get what we want. The global success of capitalist economic relations would hardly have been possible without this reductive understanding of our mental faculties and their proper function. By devoting ourselves to making and consuming money, then, we are simply doing what it is our nature to do, for that is what our reasoning abilities are for. There is no place here for a different role -- Socratic dialogue, for example, or a late-Heideggerian meditative understanding of thinking. We think that our hard-headed this-worldliness has escaped the futile speculations of metaphysics, but in this way too we unconsciously live according to a diminished philosophical understanding of ourselves, which we now view as natural. This instrumentalization extends the modern tendency to commercialize everything: restricting our thinking abilities to this way of using them subordinates the "used" (calculative reasoning) to the "user" (motivating desires). With Hobbes and Locke we became "owners" of ourselves; with Hume we complete the process by splitting and commodifying our own minds. [25]

    The fruit of Hume's philosophy and Locke's politics was Adam Smith's economics. In The Wealth of Nations (1776) we find for the first time our modern conception of civil society as a sphere of self-interested and self-regulating economic activity, apart from the state but sympathetically supported by it. Rational self-interest replaces any shared vision of a cosmic order. Smith's world is a fully commodified one: civil society is constituted by three components of production -- land, labor, and capital -- that yield three types of reward: rent, wages, and profits. Contrary to Ferguson, people assist each other only on the basis of mutual self-interest, but it turns out that is enough. Smith's notion of an "invisible hand" provided "a powerful economic and moral argument for the untrammeled pursuit of individual self-interest and announced the appearance of civil society organized around 'economic man'... The drive for wealth and economic advantage was now the force behind all human activity in civil society" (Ehrenberg 102):

[Every individual] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. [26]

    Today this is our great myth, providing the foundation for our notion of civil society by explaining how we live today: why we cooperate and why we do not. Yet Smith's understanding of this was much more nuanced than that of many modern "Smithians". He never used the term laissez-faire and he expected government expenses to increase as civilization advanced. [27] He believed that only the influence of society transforms us into moral beings, yet he had no illusions that self-interest works to the benefit of everyone, or even the majority: "Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many" (Wealth of Nations, 407). The role of a "sympathetic" state includes protecting power and extreme inequality.

    In his lesser-known Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Smith notices how market exchange tends to corrode the very shared community values it needs to restrain its excesses: honesty, thrift, self-discipline, etc. He argues that the moral basis of our existence is the need that each has for recognition and consideration on the part of others. To be noticed with sympathy and approbation are the driving force behind "all the toil and bustle of the world . . . the end [goal] of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth." [28] This roots economic activity in something non-economic. As with Ferguson, the marketplace -- the realm of civil society for Smith -- is not simply a neutral place where already-morally-constituted individuals meet to exchange; it is itself an "ethical arena" in which we become who we are through the perceptions that others have of us (Seligman 27).

    This serves to remind us of something that modern economists (but not advertisers!) tend to forget: most market exchange is for satisfying psychological needs, not physical ones. Smith's point about our preoccupation with individual recognition and approval can also be understood in lack terms: the need of our "empty" ego-selves to feel more real. As we grow up, our sense-of-self develops by internalizing the attention of others, for they name us and treat us as if we are real. Since that sense-of-self remains an ungrounded psychological construct, however, we can never get enough attention to feel really real. The more individualized a person becomes, the more one must cope by using one's "inner" psychological resources, and the more "empty" one therefore feels. There are different ways to try to fill up this emptiness, but by no coincidence most of them involve the attention and approval of others.

    Smith also has a somewhat Buddhist understanding of the way our dissatisfaction with the present motivates the "desire of bettering our condition". He sees this dissatisfaction as natural to human beings, a permanent feature of our lives experienced even in the womb. It is crucial for economic development and, insofar as it motivates the growth of our character, for moral development as well. This is why the competitive drive for wealth and economic success becomes the force behind all human activity in civil society. As with Hume, reason plays no role in regulating this self-aggrandizement or in balancing the relationship between private desire and public welfare -- despite the fact that, as Smith acknowledges, there is something delusive about our economic goals. In the "languor of disease and the weariness of old age," the moral insignificance of worldly goods appears in its true light, for neither our possessions nor even the beauty and utility admired in "any production of art" prove capable of bringing true happiness in such adversity. However, we seldom look upon the matter in this "abstract and philosophical light" and "it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner": "It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind." [29]

    The worldly fruit of our economic pursuits brings us no lasting happiness. Rather than seeking happiness in another way, however, this child of the Enlightenment encourages the deception, which is necessary to motivate our social and personal development. In other words, for Adam Smith the economic and civilizing glue of society is ultimately based upon a collective lie, or something we all agree to repress: that our self-interested economic activity can never give us what we seek from it.

    If we reflect on why Smith -- and we -- accept this deception, the answer would seem to be: now that God is dead, or too far away to be relevant anymore, all we can do is distract ourselves from our mortality, and make the best of a bad thing by pursuing our own economic advantage. Our lack cannot be solved, so let's divert ourselves while we can.

    Here the contrast with Buddhism is sharp, for the Buddhist path is preoccupied with acknowledging our mortality and using that as our teacher. According to the foundational myth, Sakyamuni's spiritual quest was motivated by his shocked encounter with an ill man, an old man, and then a corpse. "Does this happen to everyone? To me too?" he asked his attendant -- precisely the realization of our mortality that nature and Smith conspire for us to forget. But Sakyamuni's quest allows our minds a spiritual role that Hume's and Smith's instrumental reason has no place for.


The American Religion [30]

    Why didn't socialism ever catch on in the United States? Because America had its own civil religion, to use Bellah's term. Its ideology precluded the development of a socialist movement by offering an individualist explanation of what is wrong with us and how to solve it.

    By Hegel's time it had become evident that self-regulating markets increased not only wealth but poverty and inequality. His realization that the new economy could not solve this problem inspired his turn toward the state. "In the end, civil society is an alienated, unfree, and unjust sphere, for a power alien to the individual and over which he has no control determines whether his needs will be fulfilled... The anarchy of a sphere of self-serving proprietors cannot produce integration, rationality, universality, and freedom" (Ehrenberg 126-8). The only thing that can reconcile the antagonisms created by the new civil society is the state, the locus of our highest collective ends and the final realization of Spirit in history.

    Marx rejected this metaphysical fantasy, for the simple reason that the state was being shaped by civil society rather than vice-versa. He looked forward to a future society where non-commodified human relationships would recover the communal bonds of a pre-capitalist past. Yet his alternative vision of civil society is best understood as a capitalist heresy because it shares the same economic presuppositions about what constitutes the social glue. Marx's materialist theory of history left no transformative role either for ideology (religion an opiate) or for civil society itself: they are only effects of the technological developments and economic forces that drive our social evolution.

    The communal and group-based cultures of feudal Europe resisted the full development of a civil society based upon autonomous individual agents. That resistance became socialism and syndicalism, which rejected the new class system. But appeals to the universal solidarity of an international working class were not persuasive in the United States, which had no feudal past to resist an identity founded on self-interested individualism. In its place, "Americanism" provided "a highly attenuated, conceptualized, platonic impersonal attraction to a handful of notions -- democracy, liberty, opportunity, to all of which the American adheres rationalistically, much like a socialist adheres to his socialism." [31] According to Seligman, the components of this core ideology can be traced back to our sectarian Protestant origins -- in particular, to the religious vision of the New England Puritans.

    The key to understanding this is the question: what created the individual? What empowered us to break away from communal norms and become self-interested, able to decide for ourselves what to value and how to seek it? Again, the answer is found in a religious development: in the way that the source of moral (and hence social) order was relocated, from a transcendent God to one's own "inner light." This was not a rejection of the transcendent; to become empowered as individuals, people must first be invested with transcendental qualities. As Seligman puts it, "our notion of the ethically autonomous individual -- upon which the idea of civil society rested -- is predicated on the introjection within the individual of a particular dimension of grace which had previously been defined in otherworldly terms" (67). Luther could stand up to the Church because he introjected God: he was doing what God wanted him to do. This "individual-in-relation-to-God" (Troeltsch) was the main consequence of the Reformation, and it was not originally a secular one. Not only monks but now everyone was called upon to be in the world but not of it, to attain a Grace that transcended this-worldly concerns.

    Here we pick up again the threads of the Puritan movement, which failed to purify English society but had another chance in the New England across the sea. Calvinism broke down the traditional solidarities of a corporate Christianity by emphasizing a new kind of tie between people that replaced blood with religious belief. In place of kinship and localized identities, social solidarity became based on shared ideological commitment to the Reformation -- literally, to the task of reforming society. It was formalized in covenants that created a "community of saints," with "each standing in unmediated relation to the source of transcendent power and authority". This implied a new type of authority: ministry was based on consent, mutual agreement, and the equality of believers and ministers before God (69).

    Far from liberating individuals to pursue their own self-interest, this new moral authority involved increased personal responsibility to pursue a state of spiritual perfection within this-worldly institutions. And the inner grace shared by covenanted members must be spread outside, in order to construct a Holy Commonwealth that would realize God's grace within the world. In place of ecclesiastical rule, however, the New England Puritans distinguished civil from religious institutions, each helping the other for the mutual welfare of both. Only in this way could a pure social order be maintained, uncorrupted by history.

    The law of nature was common to all societies, but the law of grace was now taken to be the special promise of New England, which had an "errand in the wilderness": to realize God's Kingdom in the Promised Land. This presupposed a community of saints who had experienced regeneration and the infusion of Grace. Again, however, it didn't work out as they hoped. Instead of converting the rest of the New World, after 1633 there was a decline in conversion experiences within the communities themselves. The second generation which came of age in the 1650s did not seem to have the same experience of saving grace as its fathers had. Economic growth around that time also contributed to breaking down the group solidarities of the founders. As communal life fragmented, there was a noticeable decline in commitment to the original values.

    This led to a crisis which could maintain the old model of social order only by radically redefining its spiritual ideals. By the end of the seventeenth century the normative order, which before had been collectively determined by the covenanted churches of regenerate saints, was seen to reside within each individual soul, and this allowed a larger but looser group sense of national identity to develop. "The Puritan sect as an instance of the 'particularism of grace', defining membership in the 'Holy Commonwealth', gave way to a secularized form of civic virtue embracing the whole of the collective" (77). Grace was interiorized into individual conscience. The old distinction between Nature and Grace, the World and the Church, the unregenerate and the regenerate, became a distinction within each individual, which meant that the moral order now rested not on the collective Grace of the community but on the moral behavior of each person, who carried within the sources of salvation as well as damnation. The communal approach to overcoming lack, in a church of covenanted saints, had not worked, so responsibility devolved upon each person to deal with his or her own lack in an inner moral struggle between good and evil. Grace and lack became privatized.

    In practice, this meant that criteria for church membership in New England came to rest less on an avowed experience of saving grace and more on the moral uprightness of each individual. The secular consequences of this turned out to be immense, for this invested the individual with an absolute moral foundation unknown in Europe, where personal liberty was traditionally limited by the common good. For the first time in history, the individual as autonomous moral agent became the fundamental component of civil society and the political order.

    This implied a new type of community. Early in the eighteenth century this new moral order was modified by adding the more secular principles of reason based on natural law. By the middle of the century politics and government were founded on a new trinity: God, Nature (natural law) and Reason. Together these transformed the "Holy Commonwealth" into a civil millennial tradition which defined the "Children of Israel" not in terms of a covenanted church but in terms of civic membership in the nation. In this fashion the millennial expectations of the first Puritan settlers evolved into "a mode of civil consciousness" (Pocock).

    Again, this new consciousness was not really secular: rather, it sacralized the nation. "Enthusiasm," earlier an abusive term associated with evangelical millennialism, became "enthusiasm of liberty," a "noble infirmity" and a source of national pride, part of the developing discourse of civic virtue. "It is this unique interweaving of religious and civil traditions that characterized the civil society tradition in the United States, setting it off from those of other nation-states" and leading to Americans' sense of their exceptionalism. John Adams declared: "I have always considered the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth." [32] America's pristine wilderness allowed a new vision of man and nature woven with Biblical images: the New Canaan, the promised land, a new paradigm of a paradise "emancipated from history" (79-84).

    By the end of the eighteenth century American settlers agreed that they were a chosen people, and the destiny of their republic was identified with the course of redemptive history. As the main agent of God's activity in history, "America had become both the locus and the instrument of the great consummation. The equation of the Kingdom of God with the American nation ... substituted the nation for the Church" (85-6). The United States would show the rest of the world how to overcome lack. In place of the Puritans' Christian story, there was now the foundational myth of the sacred American nation to which Melville (like many others, including Lincoln and Emerson) assigned the task of redemption:

We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people -- the Israel of our time; we bear the arc of the Liberties of the world... God has given to us, for future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted... And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of the earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we can not do a good to America but we give alms to the world. [33]

    How blessed must America be, for even its selfishness to benefit the whole world! Of course, less religious versions of this attitude are not hard to find today -- e.g., in the fervor with which we promote economic globalization, which is really in everyone's best interests, even if some other countries do not realize it yet. We still see it as our duty to export to the rest of the world our model of how to end lack: not only democracy and free trade but, increasingly, our consumerist lifestyle.

    This new national identity was based upon a new personal identity: the individual's freedom to pursue his own self-interest. Originally this was understood in moral terms, as we saw, but growing emphasis on reason and natural law transformed the grace of a universal God (already internalized as an inner light) into the still-transcendental qualities of a universal Reason which was able to realize our fundamental and inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This too was quite new, for English laws had recognized only inherited rights.

In the closest connection with the great religious political movement out of which the American democracy was born, there arose the conviction that there exists a right not conferred upon the citizen but inherent in man, that acts of conscience and expressions of religious conviction stand inviolable over against the state as the exercise of a higher right. This right so long suppressed is not "inheritance," is nothing handed down from their fathers, as the rights and liberties of Magna Charta and of the other English enactments -- not the State but the Gospel proclaimed it. [34]

    If the individual were to be truly autonomous, the source of all moral value, he required a more firm foundation in natural law and the rationality that discovers it. That individual became secularized when "Reason replaced the Deity as locus of universalist values and injunctions in both the ethical and the social (interpersonal) sphere." To review, the sequence was: God became internalized as an inner light of grace; that inner light became understood in moral terms as conscience; and then that moral conscience became Reason, originally that which enables us to apprehend God, the source of our natural goodness. The individual became secular when that reason became calculative and instrumental. The result was "a new idea of the universal no longer rooted in a transcendent and otherworldly sphere but in the immanent this-worldly workings of Reason" (92-94).

    But what has that development done to society? "Society itself is no longer a universal but exists only as a derivative of the individual as subject" (95). As Margaret Thatcher famously expressed it in a different context, there is no such thing as society. And that, in a nutshell, is our problem. How can we have a social whole that would be a whole, that would overcome the particularity of its members without negating that particularity (as, for example, fascism does)? What binding ties are there on a society of individuals whose relationships and contracts emphasize their autonomy and independence over their fundamental communality? In short, how does one get a truly civil society out of a collection of independent individuals?

We have seen that as long as this attempt was carried out in transcendent terms, either with John Locke or in the natural law philosophy of eighteenth century America (which was uniquely tied to a secularized virtue and the traditions of ascetic-Protestantism), such a synthesis was possible. With the loss of the transcendent dimension and its replacement solely by Reason (and thus, in the civil sphere the ties of market exchange and strategic or instrumental action), the moorings of a unified social vision broke loose (99).

    The loss of a transcendent religious dimension means there is nothing left that binds us together. Our individuality means that we now view civil society as irrelevant to our lack, now also understood solely in individual terms. Hence the overweening importance of my personal success in an increasingly competitive social environment. If my lack is now only my own problem, there is no reason for me to cooperate with others, except insofar as that helps me get the things I want. Morality, reason and value reside within me. This voids all shared public spaces and events of any value in themselves. "More than anywhere else, America is characterized by a community of absolute subjects, each 'ontologically' self-contained, existing in a state of 'metaphysical equality' and united only by the logic of rational exchange" (135). De Tocqueville noticed this even during his 1830-1 visit:

The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of the rest -- his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. [35]

    Of course, this type of civil society and market exchange was not what Adam Ferguson had in mind when he referred to human sociability, or even what Adam Smith meant when he wrote about our need for others' attention and approbation. For them, the arena of civil society is where we are morally constituted and validated; in lack terms, our participation in civil society is important for resolving our lack. But de Tocqueville's society of strangers follows inexorably from Hume's distinction between value and reason: reason in the public sphere is seen as value-neutral and instrumental, while value is restricted to the individual and therefore the private sphere. This works against the very concept of a civil society. "The whole force of the civil society tradition is in fact aimed against any restriction of reason to what we would now call, following Weber, instrumental rationality" (34). The victory of that calculative rationality has been the slow disintegration of civil society.

    As God faded away, the way was cleared for the United States to conduct its grand social experiment in self-interested "free enterprise". But today the question becomes ever more pressing for us: how can such a collection of individuals constitute a civil society?

    Seligman's own solution to this involves a new appreciation of social trust as essential. Modern societies have universalized trust in terms of citizenship, welfare entitlements, etc., but these tend to vitiate the mutuality and communality of the interpersonal trust he has in mind: people networks based on ethnic relations, local communities, shared religious faith, and other traditions. [36] He realizes that they will not be easy to revive, for they are "premodern" and "pre-contractual" (171-2).

    Such networks of trust continue to be eroded by our tendency to commodify everything, including human relationships. What social forces remain today to resist this commodification? We can answer that question by asking another: historically, what institution has done the most to encourage interpersonal trust?


Conclusion: A "New" Civil Society?

    There is another important strand of thinking about civil society, one not yet discussed but usually the first to come to mind today: civil society as an intermediate sphere of voluntary associations standing between the individual and the state. According to Tocqueville's conception, these voluntary associations focus on the pursuit of private matters and are not generally concerned with political or economic affairs. Nevertheless, they are essential for the ways they fuse personal interest with the common good. They protect individuals from the state because they are based upon localism and particularism; they also overcome the tendency of self-interested individuals to produce a society of strangers disconnected from each other.

    The contemporary version of this is communitarianism, [37] which Ehrenberg subjects to a scathing critique for ignoring economic issues. He focuses on the negative effects of major changes in work and income. Declining involvement in the political process is due to increasing income disparity; political participation continues to be heavily biased toward the top. The replacement of secure government and unionized manufacturing labor with nonunion, low-wage service and retail jobs has had a profoundly destructive effect. "Perhaps the 'unravelling of civic America' is due to changes in the nature of work rather than peoples' television habits or their individualism." Many people are too exhausted or busy or frustrated to engage in traditional community activities. Many of the intractable problems in inner-city neighborhoods -- crime, drugs, family dissolution, welfare dependence -- are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work. Ehrenberg points at widening material disparities due to "the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in human history." Today (1999) nearly half of American families have a lower real income than in 1973 (245-9).

Tocqueville is not particularly helpful in these conditions. Categories derived from the face-to-face democracy of early nineteenth-century New England towns cannot furnish a credible model for public life in a highly commodified mass society marked by unprecedented levels of economic inequality... [But Tocqueville's] notion of civil society performs a normalizing function by making it difficult to see the economic roots of contemporary problems and blinding us to the political avenues for their resolution (Ehrenberg 234).

    "In one of the most thoroughly commercialized social orders in human history, civil society is supposed to limit the intrusive state, attenuate the ravages of the market, reinvigorate a moribund public sphere, rescue beleaguered families, and revitalize community life." That is just too much to ask. In place of communitarianism's "nostalgic and moralizing infatuation with localism," only collective political action can address the deepening inequality caused by gigantic concentrations of private wealth and power (Ehrenberg 200, 250).

    Ehrenberg's critique is persuasive, but his own political solution less so. Our problem today is not simply that civil society is under attack; more precisely, it is that we have at least three incompatible visions of civil society which seem to be engaged in a life-or-death struggle. One of them is intermediate voluntary associations which, as Ehrenberg points out, have been suffering from the radical economic changes of the last few decades. The second is more difficult to see, because it has become so naturalized that we are often unaware it assumes a particular vision of how we should live together: the Locke/Hume/Smith understanding of society as bound together by markets, which (for Locke and Hume) are in themselves morally neutral. Because we think of this as an economic system, we tend to overlook its profound social consequences.

    The third is leftist or progressive visions derived from socialism, which seek to replace capitalist exploitation and commodification with more just and equal social arrangements. Despite personal sympathies with this third view, I am concerned that the need to reduce income disparities -- which certainly needs to be done -- may cause us to go to the other extreme (from communitarianism) and focus too much on an economic understanding of civil society. The usual leftist suspicion of entrenched religious institutions is well deserved, given their dismal record of complicity with oppressive economic and political elites. But civil society cannot be healthy unless there is something that binds us together, and, as we have seen, historically that unifying force in the West has been rooted in a religious vision. That particular Christian understanding of the world may no longer be persuasive to us, yet contemporary accounts of society which ignore or deprecate all religious perspectives do so at the risk of not being able to account for the spiritual (or ultimate existential) concerns that still motivate people.

    Does that suggest another alternative to these three conceptions of civil society? I have argued that Anglo-American civil society and social thought have religious origins because our sense of lack came to be understood in a radically different way. A transcendent, otherworldly solution to lack was replaced by a covenanted project to reform this world. This new project was not secular, but its failure eventually led to a more secular understanding of the "inner light" which transformed from grace to conscience and then to a rationality that our self-interest could use instrumentally. In this process, the transcendent social glue dissolved. Where are new bonds to be found today? To what extent do those religious origins survive as unacknowledged foundations that need to be revivified if civil society is to be revived?

    The point is not merely that Anglo-American civil society has theological origins; our society remains theological in the sense that its values and institutions cannot help being based upon some ultimate view about our human nature -- in my terms, about the nature of our lack and how that is to be overcome. This bedrock view may be taken for granted, but our self-understanding and life-projects are nonetheless determined by it. Seventeenth-century discussions of the Bible produced the basic alternatives we still debate today in more secularized terms: is human nature evil, in need of restraint? Or does an oppressive society deform our natural goodness? If we want to break out of the stultifying stand-off between them, we need to return to the basic existential issues and rethink them afresh. The most fundamental one, I suggest, is our sense of lack. In order to know what to do about it, we need to come to some social understanding of what it is and what causes it. The question is not whether or not to do "theology," but whether our ultimate commitments are conscious or unconscious. Do we understand our deepest motivations, or are we their victims?

    Seligman concludes that the problem of civil society is (re)constituting interpersonal trust, but he has no illusions about this being easy. "It is, finally, the intractable difficulties in theorizing any concrete and meaningful criteria of trust in modern, rationalized, and highly differentiated societies that make all contemporary (Western) attempts to reconstitute civil society as idea, or, more pointedly, as ideal, so difficult" (13). What does trust inhere in? What motivates us to commit ourselves to something greater than our own individual self-interest? English civil society originated in the seventeenth century, out a collective spiritual/moral purpose. The Puritans were willing to sacrifice themselves for His cause because they did not doubt that they were God's agents on earth.

    This suggests that, for civil society to thrive, it must be based on something more than the pursuit of individual self-interest, on something more than intermediate associations that work to limit state power. The widespread assumption that civil society is a morally-indifferent sphere of self-interested cooperation, and that the common good is merely a sum of our private goods, must be questioned. This is something religions are well-placed to do, for it is their role to offer alternative explanations of what our lack is and how to address it. Ferguson and Smith understood that the social sphere is an ethical arena where we become who we are through others' perceptions of us; the Puritan version of this emphasized our spiritual and moral responsibility for others. In my contemporary Buddhist terms, civil society must again be recognized as that dimension of our lives where we work together to reform society so that it does not objectify greed, ill-will and ignorance in institutions, but instead empowers us to understand and address our lack... These hopes may be utopian, but, without the nourishment of such "millennialist" roots, perhaps we should not expect civil society to revive. [38]



1. Adam B. Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 15.

2. In addition to the other works cited, see for example Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); John Keane, Democracy and Civil Society (London: Verso, 1988); Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).

3. John Keane, "Despotism and Democracy", in Keane, ed., Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives (London: Verso, 1989), 65.

4. "The Spiritual Roots of Modernity: Buddhist reflections on the idolatry of the nation-state, corporate capitalism and mechanistic science" in Sulak Sivaraksa, ed., Socially Engaged Buddhism for the New Millennium (Bangkok: Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation, 1999), 86-113.

5. For more on lack, see my Lack and Transcendence: the Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism and Buddhism (Humanities Press, 1996).

6. "When we ask whether those who advocated war with Spain [a major political issue during the same period] were motivated by religious or economic considerations, our question is unanswerable. Contemporaries could not have answered it, would not indeed have asked it. It is an anachronistic question." (Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution [Penguin 1994], 35)

7. See Civil Society and the State, 36.

8. This section draws mainly on John Ehrenberg, Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea (New York University Press, 1999), chapters 1 and 2, and Seligman's The Idea of Civil Society, chapter 1.

9. Christopher Hill, A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688 (New York: Norton, 1988), 68-69. According to Hill, this despair reached its height in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the Bible too became questioned.

10. William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (Columbia University Press, 1938), 27.

11. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin, 1975) 154-5.

12. The English Bible, 20. According to Hill, the century from the 1580s to the 1680s is also the greatest age in English literature (335). This section draws heavily on The English Bible and The World Turned Upside Down.

13. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, quoted in English Bible, 40.

14. Clement Walker in Christopher Hill, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, Penguin 1972), 224-5; also 135 and passim.

15. Predestination has become an alien and repugnant doctrine to us, but Haller makes it, if not plausible, at least more understandable: "As in later times men were taught to follow with patient observation the least workings of natural law in the external universe, men in the Puritan age were taught to follow by intense introspection the working of the law of predestination within their own souls. Theoretically, there was nothing they could do but watch, nothing they could of their own will do to induce or further the process of regeneration. They were only the witnesses of a drama they could do no more than marvel at. But the theatre of that drama was the human breast, and their own fate right up to the deathbed scene hung upon its outcome. They watched its unfolding, therefore, with the most absorbed attention. With the most anxious curiosity, they looked into their own most secret thoughts for signs that the grace of God was at its work of regeneration, and what they so urgently looked for they naturally saw. Seen by the light of the word, as they read it in the holy book and heard it expounded from the pulpit, their own lives fell under their gaze into the pattern set by Paul" (91). The Puritans kept diaries, and a growing literature of spiritual biographies became popular for its account of internal struggle. The test of true conversion was active and continual perseverance. Does that help to explain our distaste? "Perhaps the desire of later generations to escape from Puritanism has been at least in part a desire to do business with less hindrance from a scheme of life so insistent upon keeping the individual forever in mind of his moral responsibilities" (119).

16. Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 41.

17. There were also local attempts to reform particular communities. One of them is described in David Underdown's The Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 1992). After a disastrous fire which was interpreted as a providential sign, the largely Puritan gentry of Dorchester, in Devon, reorganized the town according to Biblical principles of collective welfare.

18. Christopher Hill, Liberty Against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (Penguin, 1997), 331.

19. Kenney's introduction to Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform or, True Magistracy Restored (New York: Schocken, 1973), 1.

20. Is Hobbes' understanding of our human nature valid, or was he misled by the particularly chaotic times in which he lived? For a well-known debate on this topic, see Michael Oakeshott's introduction to Leviathan (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946) and C. B. Macpherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford Univerity Press, 1962). From my Buddhist perspective, the basic issue is the source of our lack. Rather than takes sides in a debate about whether our nature is originally good or bad, Buddhism emphasizes that all of us have both unwholesome traits (which should be reduced and eliminated) and wholesome ones (which should be encouraged and developed).

21. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Penguin, 1985), 161.

22. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: progress and its critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 79, referring to Mumford's Faith for Living (1940).

23. Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 51. Also see Ehrenberg, 91-96.

24. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. H. D. Aitken (New York: Macmillan, 1948), Book III, Part I, section 1, p. 185.

25. Today this fits well with the computerization of mind, for such a metaphor is appropriate if reasoning is a kind of data-processing.

26. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 292. Notice where the "always" and "frequently" are placed.

27. Jerry Z. Muller, Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 2 and passim.

28. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1982), 50.

29. Theory of Moral Sentiments, as quoted in The True and Only Heaven,55.

30. The following section draws heavily on ch. 2 of Seligman's The Idea of Civil Society, and unless otherwise indicated all page numbers in parentheses refer to this chapter.

31. Leo Sampson, "Americanism as Surrogate Socialism," in J. Laslett and S. M. Lipset, eds., Failure of a Dream (New York: Anchor, 1974), 426. As Walter Dean Burnham put it, "no feudalism, no socialism" (in Seligman 104).

32. John Adams, The Papers of John Adams, ed. R. Taylor (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977) vol. 2.

33. Melville, as quoted by Lewis H. Lapham in "Notebook," Harper's Magazine March 2000, 15. Take away the moral telos, and what remains is "we are the greatest country in the world", an arrogance impervious to "mistakes" such as the Vietnam war, and even more worrisome now that we are the only superpower.

34. Georg Jellinek, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens: A Contribution to Modern Constitutional History (Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979), 74-75.

35. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2 (New York: Vintage 1945), 338.

36. Against Habermas' idea of "free and unrestrained communication" to solve our disagreements, Seligman points out that it is precisely these shared affective aspects of the world which cannot be subsumed into the workings of some rational formula for linguistic pragmatics (195).

37. See, for example, Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda (London: Fontana, 1995).

38. There is an obvious and powerful objection to this line of thought. The modern distinction between state and church was hard-won, and many unsavory "premodern" examples of religious influence on politics survive: the Taliban in Afghanistan, Brahmin sectarians in India, the Catholic Church in fascist Spain, etc. Common to them is a "fundamentalism" that knows the truth and therefore seeks to impose its moral code on the rest. This has been perhaps the main reaction of religious institutions to the challenge of "secular" modernity, but if so it just highlights the importance of a different response: the need for interreligious dialogue. Such dialogue is necessary to help religions gain the perspective on themselves they need to distinguish what is still essential in their messages from what is historically dated. Those perspectives will be vital for our developing understanding of what civil society is and what it can be.