Monday, October 15, 2007

Ancient Traditions – Bushido II

In my essays on Privation Morality, I tried to get a handle on how the authoritarian tradition begins, in times of privation, when the world reduces to zero sum, the game becomes not just a matter of "him or me," but rather, "us or them" and the "us" includes your family, your children, all you hold dear. Is there one among us who would not steal for their children, lie if it meant the lives of your parents, kill if the option were the deaths of all you hold dear?

So who do you pray to and who do you prey upon? Those are real world questions when the times are sufficiently rough.

The nuclear family becomes an extended family, and families merge to form tribes. And tribes war upon each other, conquer or be conquered. Is there a single human on the planet whose ancestors did not pass through this cultural experience? Is there a one of us who can claim a single lineage that did not?

I've been trying to find a passage that I believe I saw on the blog Orcinus, written by Sara Robinson, who has become one of the better analysts of the authoritarian culture. It outlines the authoritarian family bargain: The husband is the leader, the voice of the highest authority. His command is law and all must do his bidding and attend to his wishes and comfort. In return, he provides for the family and defends it with his life, if necessary.

The Paterfamilias has the power of life and death within the family. It falls to him to decide if a newborn infant is taken into the family or left to die of exposure. If any family member angers him sufficiently, he may kill them with impunity. "My home is my castle" is not just a figure of speech to a true authoritarian.

Over time, tribes merge with other tribes. Cities arise and different needs emerge. The story goes that the tradition of Paterfamilias in Rome was broken when a father ordered the death of his son—who happened to be an important Roman general. Whether the tale is true or not, the power of the head of a household is bound to ebb when the household is connected to a larger society.

One way that power is restricted is through the power of law, or the precursor of law, tradition. Familial roles become codified and legalized. The power of the father becomes the power of a caste. Since the most important role is aggression and defense, there comes to be a warrior class. The power of tradition and law often comes to rest with the priests. The True King requires the support of both.

None of this is very controversial. What comes next is where the real meta-combat begins.

The 19th Century upended everything. Distance was obliterated. Every sort of production exploded, and every commodity market in the world found itself in a game of crack-the-whip. Napoleon remade the map of Europe and the New World colonies of Spain and Portugal nominally freed themselves from their former masters, only to experience a different sort of colonialism, with economies tied to the aforementioned commodities, whose markets were not under their influence or control. Those few nations in possession of modern weaponry conquered the rest of the world with almost pitiful ease.

All the "ancient traditions" were rewritten in the new light. What became the new codes of conduct were called by the same names as the older codes, but it was a new world, and it was not the same.

The Japanese code of Bushido, the code of the warrior, was not written by warriors. It was written by a "warrior class," the Samurai, who were perhaps descended from warriors, but by the 19th Century, most of them were administrators, bureaucrats, at most policemen. Their martial experience was in the dojo, not the battlefield. Actual warriors rarely articulate philosophy, and philosophies are rarely written by warriors.

Even now, you can see the "martial spirit" in the southern United States, an echo of an echo of an echo. The Antebellum plantation elite considered themselves to be the heirs of Chivalry. They fought duels. They carried the favors of their ladies with romantic flourish (and visited the slave quarters when their carnal needs arose). They devoted themselves to fine houses and fine clothes.

And when they lost, they spent the next century mourning the "noble cause" and convincing themselves that their culture was something special, unique, lost in a torpor of nostalgia for an "ancient tradition" that never existed, could never have existed, and which, in any case, was utterly inappropriate for a time when war is simple slaughter, without glory, without honor, and largely without purpose. But the mythology lives on, first transmuted by romantic literature into the noble gunfighter of the Old West, then to the Top Gun aviator of the dogfight in the air. Denatured still further we get Spectator Sports, those little Kabuki Plays that simulate warfare as unrealistically as the playing fields of Eton simulated Waterloo (or am I the only one who always found that sentiment to be a crock?).

The Wikipedia article suggests these as the hallmarks of Bushido:

  • Rectitude
  • Courage
  • Benevolence
  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Honour, Glory
  • Loyalty
  • Filial piety
  • Wisdom
  • Care for the aged

A recent essay by my sensei's sensei called out these:

  • Courage
  • Endurance
  • Nobility
  • onesty and Faithfulness
  • Unsullied Integrity
  • Simplicity and Directness
  • Compassion (toward the weak)
  • Honor
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Non-attachment to worldly importance (including life and death)

One might think that these are all noble sentiments, as indeed they can be. So how is it that the spirit of Bushido found its way into Japanese militarism in the early 20th Century, one of the greatest national disasters in history?

Well, here is an example of the code of Chivalry:

  • Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.
  • Thou shalt defend the Church.
  • Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
  • Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
  • Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
  • Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy.
  • Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
  • Thou shalt never lie, and shall remain faithful to thy pledged word.
  • Thou shalt be generous, and give largess to everyone.
  • Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

That gave us the American Civil War. Somehow, I don't think that it is the Words' fault.


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