Or Why We Need Philosophy, Religion, and Art
Political life is limited and ultimately unsatisfying. When we focus on the external and horizontal dimension of political life, we are bound to be frustrated. But there are other dimensions and sources of meaning, beyond the political.
The despair of the political
The world is unjust. Good people often suffer in misery and obscurity. And bad folks become rich and powerful. The social and political world is messy and frustrating. Our imagined ideals fail to become real. And although progress can be made, there is backlash and unfulfilled expectations.
We inherit a broken world that conflicts with our idealism. The dream of justice runs aground on the shards of these fragments. The more we want to repair these ruins, the more hopeless things appear. We also disagree about who ruined this world, why it is broken, and how it ought to be fixed.
This sense of grievance and longing explains why the passion of the political can become shrill, dogmatic, and polarizing. Political intensity feeds off dissatisfaction. And when these deep emotions are frustrated long enough, there is the risk of despair. The passion of the political dwells in the thought that if these ruins cannot be repaired, all is lost.
Clinging to hope
To fight the despair that haunts politics, political rhetoric is often infused with what Barack Obama called “the audacity of hope.” The best and most inspiring political speech reminds us of an imagined future in which the ideal will be actualized.
Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a well-known example. He was aware of the problem of political despair. In response to the disappointments of the civil rights movement, King said, , “The only healthy answer lies in one’s honest recognition of disappointment even as he still clings to hope, one’s acceptance of finite disappointment even while clinging to infinite hope.” And: “Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward nonviolently, accept disappointments and cling to hope.”
King warned that disappointment in the face of injustice can lead to bitterness, self-pity, cynicism, nihilism, and other “poisons” of the soul. His remedy was to “cling to hope.” This phrase is interesting. To cling is to hold on, to try to remain committed, even as the storm rages.
Thinking in more than one dimension
As a Christian, King found a source of hope beyond the storm. King’s hope was oriented toward another dimension, a source of meaning that exists in a realm beyond the political. This is what Rev. Jeremiah Wright (who inspired Obama’s idea of the audacity of hope) called “the vertical dimension.”
Politics is one dimensional. It views the self and the other on a merely horizontal dimension, failing to take into account other dimensions of life and experience. This is bound to be dissatisfying because human beings live in more than one dimension.
The vertical dimension is often understood in religious terms, as an axis oriented toward the divine. But secular folks can also discover an inner dimension connected with love, beauty, or other sources of meaning found in the human experience. The most important of these non-political axes are called art, religion, and philosophy (borrowing a set of concepts from Hegel).
Now there is a tendency among some thoroughly political (or politicized) folks to reduce art, religion, and philosophy to politics. Marxists explain the “ideological” in terms of material and economic conditions. Feminists and race-conscious theorists also sometimes interpret art, religion, and philosophy from a liberatory framework. Conservatives do this as well, when they think that art, religion, and philosophy ought to support some preferred nationalistic ideal.
But the wonder of art, religion, and philosophy is that they burst the bounds of any politicized and reductive account of human reality. The artist, the mystic, and the sage exist in a different dimension, oriented toward values and ideas that are not reducible to questions of justice or power.
The example of comedy and tragedy
This may sound abstract. So let’s consider two familiar artforms: the comedic and the tragic. Comedy can be political. It can be used both to liberate and to oppress. But sometimes the comedic reveals the absurdity of existence. And laughter can be an end-in-itself.
Tragedy can also be employed for political purposes: to tell a story about oppression or the “triumph of the will.” But tragedy also transcends the political. It makes us shudder to wonder about death, evil, pride, murder, and betrayal. Sophocles has the chorus say in Antigone (line 332): There are terrors and wonders on earth, and none is more terrible or wonderful than we humans.
When a comedic artist reveals absurdity, we are directed beyond the political dimension toward broader reflection on the human condition. When we laugh, and play along, we are engaged in a world of imagination, on a dimension apart from the political. The same is true, when we are moved by tragedy to see the terror and the wonder of human existence. This act of imagination gives us a glimpse of a dimension of experience that is beyond the political.
This act of imagination can be a source of hope, repair, and reconciliation. It can also renew the spirit and gives us the energy to return to our struggles with better perspective, and a clearer sense of self.
Hope beyond politics
Now a critic may suggest that this experience of transcendence comes from a position of “privilege” that is conveniently able to ignore the challenges of political reality. But the move beyond the political is not an excuse for political indifference. We are political animals, as Aristotle said. And we cannot simply ignore injustice and the struggles of political life.
But we all possess the power of human imagination. And we can all find consolation and hope when we open our minds to those other dimensions of human experience that transcend the political.