Gautama Siddhartha- the historical Buddha- famously refused to allow his disciples to write down his words in his lifetime (of course, they began writing down everything they could remember he said the moment he died, hence the Dhammapada, and the Pali Cannon, but nonetheless). He said, "When I point at the moon, do not mistake my finger for the moon." Because, he argued, words are tricky; they entrap and ensnare us. Although we think words reveal the truth, in fact they keep the truth hidden, because we think the word is the same as the thing it represents (its referent); we trick ourselves into believing truth is black and white, when in fact truth is often gray, complex, entangled, convoluted, even contradictory.
But what does this have to do with binary thinking? And how does this have anything at all to do with mankind, politics, or civilization?
Binary thinking, in its simplest form, is the tendency of human beings to think in terms of "either / or." In fact, the brain is hardwired for dichotomy: this & that; good & bad; right & wrong; mastery & slavery; liberty & tyranny; love & hate; light & dark; helpful & harmful; spiritual & physical; and on and on and on...
Even the nature vs nurture argument is a bad argument, as anyone with even an elementary understanding of biology and psychology should know- and yet we continue to fall into the same old trap: "Either it's this or it's that, but it can't be both." And yet, in reality, almost nothing falls perfectly into this binary system of categorization- not even reality itself. For example: Men are men because of testosterone, and women are women because of estrogen, but it would be just as false to say that men do not have estrogen or that women do not have testosterone as it would be to say there was no difference at all. The reality is more complex: Men have higher quantities of testosterone and lower quantities of estrogen than women; conversely, women have higher quantities of estrogen and lower quantities of testosterone than men- but both sexes possess both hormones in different measures.
Subtlety is important; reality is very rarely binary. Oversimplification kills nuance, which degrades communication and makes us all stupid.
This is no more obvious than in politics.
Ultimately, politics- in the local, non-military, intra-national sense- is the art of problem-solving at the societal level. And although religion may make us human, it is politics that saves us from savagery. Politics is the end of barbarism; it is the beginning of civilization. Literally, the word politics comes from the Greek polis (πόλις), meaning "city"- that is, civilization as opposed to savagery and barbarism. Law, markets, democracy- all of these only exist because of politics.
Carl von Clausewitz once argued that war is the continuation of politics by other means. True enough. However, in order to be effective, non-military, intra-national politics cannot be thought of as a grand, ideological war between opposing factions. Because this is binary thinking, and leads to war, conflict, and rebellion: "Either he is for us or he is against us!" But in reality, all the members of the political body- that is, all the citizens of a particular nation- must be united, by culture and by language, in order to solve complex societal problems.
Civilization, essentially, is mankind's conquest of natural savagery. It is politics that brings peace to human beings through mutual benefit; it is politics that prevents us from returning to tribalism, to small groups of blood-related families slaughtering each other for limited resources. But when we think in binary terms- that is, when we think that a person is something simply because he belongs to [insert whatever ridiculous category here]-, we oversimplify the human being; we make the human being into a caricature of humanity. Now he is not a complex person, with a complex set of ideas and experiences unique to him; instead, he is a mere representation of a category, a caricature of a caricature of a caricature...
Modern politics is littered with simplistically binary thinking, resulting in opposing axioms that often contradict one another, perhaps depending on one's political affiliation:
"Men are natural leaders;"
"Men are violent and dangerous;"
"Black men are stronger and more athletic;"
"Black men are drug dealers and gang bangers;"
"Women are victims;"
"Women are better and more moral than men;"
"Democrats are socialists;"
"Republicans are racists and xenophobes;"
"Liberals are weak;"
"Conservatives are stupid;"
The list goes on and on and on...
None- precisely zero- of these attitudes are true in the general sense (that is, true as a complete statement). They are all caricatures of reality; they all reduce the human being to a vastly over-simplified category. This results in a distortion of behavior- especially on social media, which is the ultimate in dehumanization (the reduction of the human being to a simulation of humanity, literally represented via binary code). We see this everywhere on the internet; we divide up into our camps- on Twitter, on Facebook-, and hold one another in contempt, even though we pass one another on the street day after day with perfect civility.
Binary thinking is not only dehumanizing; it wreaks havoc on civilization itself. Instead of solving problems, we waste our time fighting one another, and working towards the destruction of our political adversaries- never once reflecting on the fact that we cannot destroy half our nation without destroying the nation itself. Politics is no longer about problem-solving; it is about racking up points in order to win some stupid, childish game- a game without prize, trophy, or conclusion. This is destroying us.
Ninety-percent of the population of any given culture are in agreement ninety-percent of the time, excluding nations that actually do exist in a state of civil war. That is what it means to share a culture, after all. And yet binary thinking has convinced us that we are not in agreement, that we stand entirely opposed to one another; to make matters worse, actual extremists to either side of whatever political aisle perpetuate the problem by representing through their extremism all the worst elements of their more moderate compatriots. The result: Citizens that hold one another in contempt for attitudes only held by five percent of the population of either side.
This is not tenable.
As technology expands in scope and strength, and as civilization grows more complex, we will be called upon to solve increasingly difficult problems. For instance, we will be called upon to solve problems pertaining to our environment. This is clearly a polarizing subject- and yet environmentalists on the political left and conservationists on the political right hate one another in spite the fact that they agree essentially on the critical point: We must protect the natural world. Nobody wants the air to be toxic, or for us to ruin the oceans with plastics- but we never address these common concerns because we are too busy arguing about a single, contentious issue: climate change.
Why? Because we have fallen victim to binary thinking; because we have already determined that the solution is either / or. Dehumanization follows, and the descent of the polis into war, violence, and savagery. This cannot be allowed.
We must stop viewing one another as caricatures of human beings. Each of us is complex, with complex ideas and experiences. There is no reason why we must agree on everything in order to respect one another; we can disagree while still respecting one another as citizens, and more importantly, as human beings. Nothing is more difficult, and yet nothing is more necessary.
~ Joshua van Asakinda
Æ: Agonistic Existentialism
Whatever is has power; whatever is not is powerless. Fundamentally, therefore, what we perceive as reality is essentially a system of power, a dynamic and evolving matrix for power-acquisition, power-ascension, and power-annihilation. Power- whether represented through physics, biological complexity, or socio-cultural symbolism (money, women, etc.)- simply is reality itself, and everything that exists within reality is an expression of it. This, of course, is hardly a popular idea.
A few great minds notwithstanding, the general trend of modern society has been against "power"- at least linguistically. "Power is bad; power is wicked; power is tyranny"- so goes the argument. However, power itself is neither moral nor immoral; power simply is, and like anything else that exists by virtue of being fundamental to reality itself, power can only be moral or immoral insofar as its use is moral or immoral. But that is not an ontological truth, nor is it an epistemological truth; rather, it is an axiological truth- that is, a truth about values, a truth about virtues. And so it is, simply stated, not a question of philosophy but rather of psychology.
Regardless, even the argument against a philosophy of power remains an act of power. Because what is power but the capacity for will, willing, and willfulness? It is the capacity for vying, acting, pushing, fighting...the question "For what?" is entirely irrelevant (at this point, but more on that later). And so whether we prefer to be honest and forthright- and so call power what it is- or rather lie, deceive, dissemble, and manipulate- and so call it by one of ten thousand socially-sanctioned labels-, the disagreement itself is proof of the point: We cannot exist without power, without seeking power, without contending for power.
The only real question is what one should do with it once he has it. But who asks such questions these days? Nobody. Or rather, far too few...
Today, power is considered only with skepticism. We condemn power; we have been conditioned to be untrusting of powerful persons, and of the pursuit of power in general. It is, perhaps, the consequence of our shared Judaeo-Christian upbringing. But what is life if not a continual struggle for power? Where there is life, there is will, and the will to power- what Nietzsche called der wille zur macht-, for power is merely the capacity to will, and that is the essence of being as opposed to non-being; it is the capacity for the creation of something beyond ourselves. Nietzsche's original term in German, after all, implies a creative act- macht as opposed to kraft-, an important distinction that is too often overlooked.
Assuming for a moment that we can all agree that strength of will is worth having- and it is, for nothing can be accomplished without it-, and assuming for a moment that strength of will is a necessary prerequisite of all other virtues- and it is, for virtue is nothing if not the capacity for self-command in the face of trial and tribulation-, then we might ask ourselves a question: What is necessary in order to develop power? And the answer is, first and foremost: pain- and not only pain, but perhaps also conflict, suffering, despondency, degeneration, and nihilism. After all, where there is no stress, there is no growth; where is no adversity, there is no overcoming of adversity. Because what is good within us is always entangled with what is dark within us...
And so, we must be grateful for strength, and we must therefore also be grateful for our trials and tribulations. Because it is only through trial and tribulation that we develop the strength of will necessary to overcome the next set of trials and tribulations; we grow, hour by hour and year by year, through pain and the conquest of pain. There are always two forces at work in everything: yin and yang; right and wrong; goodness and darkness; the Buddha and Mara; Jesus and the Devil; nirvana and samsara; AWAKENING and the Wheel of Birth and Death...
This is the essence of the philosophy of power- of agonistic existentialism (Æ)- insofar as the human being is concerned: It is a kind of quasi-moral dialectic. "Is such-and-such right?" we wonder to ourselves. "Perhaps, but it will only seed its opposite: Goodness leads to weakness; weakness leads to darkness; darkness leads to hardness; hardness leads to goodness- and the wheel goes round and round and round..." Finally, we are compelled to admit to ourselves that our foreground estimates of right and wrong- that is, our moral categories- are quite a bit more complicated than most of us would care to admit. Because it is not difficult to imagine, for instance, that one might do a very "good" thing for a "bad" reason- for instance, slavish obedience to the law-, or that one might do a very "bad" thing for a "good" reason- for instance, out of a sense of love and loyalty for a friend or family member. Furthermore, if the relationship between these two categories of value is indeed as complicated as it appears to be- if, in other words, "good" outcomes can come from "bad" inputs and "bad" outcomes can come from "good" inputs-, then we must admit that we require a new standard by which to measure the relative value of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; we find ourselves pressed with a decision either to find a deeper solution to the moral problem, or to abandon moral evaluations of any kind altogether.
Now, clearly, individual human beings cannot be held accountable for the large-scale consequences of their behaviors, which are at any rate incalculable; they can only be held accountable for themselves - and yet that is precisely the point. Because there is only one measure by which we can determine whether or not an action is desirable (we cannot even say "right" or "wrong" in this sense); there is only one question that we must ask ourselves: "Does this reveal strength, and mastery of the individual over himself?" Ultimately, that is all what we all desire, after all, and in any event, we cannot reasonably predict the end results of our actions past their immediate effects. So to judge the value of an action by any other measure conceals from us our own motivations, which leads to deception and dishonesty towards ourselves and others, not to mention moral and psychological slavishness. To judge the value of an action by its consequences, however, is an equally foolish goal, and also destined to fail; the complexity of the world is far too vast to calculate "ends" or "effects" of actions. After all, how far down the road should we calculate the consequences of our actions? A day? A year? And to what extent? How far should our estimations reach, across how many miles and millions of miles? Quickly we realize that such a theory of behavior would lead to insanity- and it has.
Our modern conceptions of right and wrong are deeply flawed; we have traded wisdom, which is ambiguous yet authentic, for short-hand rules for moral action, which are unambiguous but inauthentic. The effect has been disastrous; the world is now filled with philosophical contradictions- we ourselves are filled with philosophical contradictions!-, and too often we find ourselves unwittingly condemning the very causes of the conditions that we claim to support, and vice versa. Everywhere we look, we find turmoil and conflict, and it is entirely due to our inability to recognize three very important truths:
1) WILLPOWER: that all human beings- indeed, all living beings- want power of some sort, and only differ in two regards: in their degree of power, and in their mode of expression of power- in other words, in how much power they possess, and in how they choose to apply that power;
2) HAPPINESS & SUFFERING: that because the external effects of our actions are wildly complex, and that "positive" effects and "negative" effects cannot be disentangled, utopianism is impossible- not to mention undesirable!-, for we tend to respond to extremes by rushing to the opposing extreme, and psycho-physiologically speaking, stress- that is, pressure and conflict (anti-utopian conditions)- is the primary requirement for growth, and for the flourishing of the human being;
3) REVEALING THE MASTER WITHIN: that because the "positive" and the "negative" are so entangled, all of our immediate estimations of value are rendered meaningless, and so the only means by which to measure the value of an action is through its internal effects- that is, by determining whether or not it represents power (over the "self," over the "passions," etc.), or whether perhaps it represents powerlessness, and a hidden weakness- which we might prefer not reveal either to ourselves or others (for instance in the case of what is today known as "virtue signaling").
This then- the internalization of the pursuit of power- is what we may call self-mastery, which is a far stronger and more truthful philosophy than what most of us believe in today (if the vast majority of people can be said to believe anything at all; most of us are merely conditioned to believe). It is also the essential characteristic of all ancient religious traditions; it is only because of modernism- that is, the weakening effects of material prosperity on human psycho-physiology- that our religions have decayed. And it is what might be loosely called the way of the warrior. Tragically, the wisdom of old has been almost entirely abandoned, and with catastrophic consequences…
~ Joshua van Asakinda
Joshua van Asakinda is a master-level psychological consultant, and the creator of ZenTactics, Heroic Theory, & Zenshida'i Silat-Serak.