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Am I A Fascist?

I must say I am a big fan of Umberto Eco. He is one of the best representatives of modernity, and post-modernity; an articulate defender of critical thinking. My deference to religion, accepting that it can take good forms, and forms that are so bad as to be, frankly, embarrassing to those in any way associated with it, would seemingly make me a bit of a traditionalist in comparison. But what tradition am I respecting? Whatever one thinks of Huston Smith’s arguments in books such as "Forgotten Truth," certainly, his distrust of evolution goes too far in my opinion, he does make a solid case for the great chain of being. In his estimation, it’s not important because it’s good, it’s important because it’s true.

In Eco's provocative essay "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt," he writes that: "Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counterrevolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but is was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of the faiths indulgently accepted by the Roman pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages -- in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little-known religions of Asia.

This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, "the combination of different forms of belief or practice;" such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and although they seem to say different or incompatible things, they all are nevertheless alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.

As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.

If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge -- that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism."

I hope my website is not a symptom of this eternal fascism, God knows the internet has enough of that! But let me clarify my own position here. Most people, I’m sure Eco would agree, try to create meaning out of the bits of information that are presented to them in daily life. Human beings are meaning-making creatures. Therefore, when encountering different absolutist truth claims, as we inevitably do, that on some points are exclusive and on other points share similarities, wouldn’t it be natural to consider the exclusive points as relative and investigate into the tenets they have in common? This investigation is personal; fascism only enters the picture in your relations with others, to the extent that you allow or deny this inquiry, or any inquiry, to others. I don’t see any need to force my opinions on others, I share what I think and others are free to think whatever they want. Whether religions really do have commonalities is open to debate (I say yes, they are not so different that we need to dismiss possible universal ideas, which seemed to evolve independent of cultural contact. These ideas may reflect universal truths, they may reflect the flaws common in human thinking, or both, but the point is that it is a universal of some kind).

In my picture of the universe I see a dynamic, ever-changing system infused with intelligence. Rather than dismissing the great chain as a cultish reaction to rationality, I see it as a simple recognition that the cosmos is greater than we know, understand, or imagine.

The idea of a hierarchy of being, at least in western thought, is generally traced to Greece. According to Arthur Lovejoy, the great chain was present in Plotinus’s philosophy, who took it from Plato and Aristotle. The latter two philosophers were harbingers of the rational revolution started by Socrates. Plato is often charged with advocating fascism, and if you examine his political ideas in the Republic it's easy to see why. But it is also worthy to note that one avowed anti-fascist, Noam Chomsky, traces much of his own thought to Plato.

I doubt this insight is solely a Greek invention, for its been found in many cultures, including the Native Americans. The period we call “Hellenism” is decidedly post-Greek as an ethnic identity. After the death of Alexander the Great, Hellenism was a linguistic and cultural lingua franca. Perhaps the great chain was not so much a protest against Hellenism, as it was a result of it. Mystical sects arose with the breakdown of the "polis," as imperial conquests fragmented kingdoms abroad, and altered the functioning of Greek city-states. Alexander the Great had contact with all types of people, even the subcontinent. Maybe the influences went both ways.

While the great chain of being is depicted hierarchically in medieval Christian thought, it has often been depicted like a web. Vedanta calls the levels "sheaths," which P.R. Sarkar likened to the layers of a banana flower. Tibetan Buddhists construct circular mandalas of celestial realms and their respective presiding Buddhas/Bodhisattvas. NeoPlatonic emanations also found their way into Sufism. In modern times, Ken Wilber bases much of his psychological model on his own understanding of the great chain. He describes his view as post-Kantian and post-metaphysical, rather than the Philosophia Perennis, in which the cosmos has static, non-overlapping realms. Instead, he proposes a multi-layered, single reality, with subsequent levels of awareness (and when awareness understands its own nature, there are no levels, only suchness). Like Hegel, he takes the vertical great chain and extends it horizontally throughtout events. There's plenty of room for variation in this playground. 

We can think of history as a linear process, but it is foolish to think there is some omega point. When we get complacent and think we have reached the pinnacle of  knowledge, our picture of the world gets disrupted by new information. All maps are subject to revision (including the map I’m making now), so of course there is advancement of learning! Nature never stops revealing her secrets. The mind is curious, and there is no end of things to be curious about.

According to Eco, there are 13 other features of "UR Fascism" (Eternal Fascism). We must remember "These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." It is my sincere hope that nothing coagulates around my beliefs that could turn them into fascism. If it is inevitable, I will renounce the great chain, but as I see it there is no reason to jump ship just yet.

Another aspect of UR-Fascism that Eco highlights is an obsession with a secret plot by some outside group, and this tendency to scapegoat results in xenophobia or racism. I often disagree with conspiracy theories, particularly those espoused by fundamentalists, but I have to admit that there are some that make sense. Those in power have a nasty habit of treating the earth, its resources, and its people like pieces in a chess match. How much of it is a conspiracy? Well, at least some of them are purposely manipulating those who claw tooth and claw to survive, those who inadvertently fund their decadent lifestyle. But there are other factors even those in power might not see, bound to carry out schemes because of motivations they too are enslaved by.

No one hates fascism more than me. Unfortunately, history shows how tempting and easy it is to adopt its methods, especially in desperate circumstances. If you ask me, not only are spiritual teachings still relevant in today’s world, we need them now more than ever.

I’m not na´ve enough to assume that a few enlightened individuals are enough to solve all our problems. Economic and political problems need economic and political solutions. But what inspires that? Marx was correct that consciousness is shaped by outer economic systems, but I disagree that those systems alone shape consciousness. We cannot ignore interior motivations. We need moral leaders, leaders who have moved beyond ethnocentric thinking. Individuals as individuals cannot do everything, but the values that individuals hold affect quality of life, and when it comes to quality of life, we’re all in this together.