Sunday, August 23, 2009

Economics and spirituality (pt. 1)

"'He is infallible, he has an infallible, omniscient mind'. 'It is impossible to deceive Ahura, who sees all', says the Yasna. Like the other sky gods, Ahura Mazda is never sleepy and no narcotic has any effect on him. That is why no secret escapes 'his keen gaze'. Ahura Mazda gaurantees the inviolability of contracts, and the keeping of promises; when he revealed to Zarathustra why he had created Mithra, Ahura Mazda said that anyone who breaks a pact (mithra = 'contract') will bring bad luck to the entire land. It is thus he who ensures good contractual relations among men, and also the steady balance of natural forces and general prosperity."
-Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion

Ahura Mazda was a Babylonian sky god with his origins in Sumerian culture who was worshiped during the period just pre to historical (written) times. According to Eliade, the sky god is a common early hierophany (his word for a thing, symbol, rite, etc. that is embued with sacredity), and this sky god was often all knowing and all powerful and also often had a kind of magical sovereignty. This magical sovereignty manifested itself in that he controlled the scales of justice, actively punishing individuals and society for, for example, breaking a contract between two legal parties.

So, what we have is a god who, at one time, could absolutely, omnisciently tell if someone was engaged in immoral business practices, and it was known that this god would then magically punish this person or his society for the act of lying, cheating, stealing (whether or not these acts might be technically or apparently legal [because an omniscient god knows what's in the heart as well as what's in the contract]).

So, for another example, if a bank were charging usurious fees, that would be punishable by the sky god, Ahura Mazda, through his emissary Mithra. And the whole society might potentially be punished for this behavior. As an interesting side note, for years in Europe the bond market had to be intricately worked to get around the letter and therefore also the spirit of Christianity's usury laws, and in France (i.e.) for a time, they were in the form of either fixed length or life time pensions instead of straight repayments of a loan with interest. Britain, the netherlands, Spain, etc. all had similar financial acrobatics.

Cuneiform, another Sumerian invention, is one of the earliest extant forms of writing and was itself used to create a kind of bond. They were clay tablets with marks made by a reed that represented agreements to repay the immediate receipt of a product (a cow, a goat, some grain, etc.) with an agreed upon larger relative amount, usually, at the end of the growing season.

I think it's quite telling that our first written language here in the West was used for the pursuit of business and trade, and that one of our earliest formulations of the godhead was one that would punish shady business dealings.

I think it's also interesting that although the Christian Evangelical movement continues to believe in magic (the rapture and more generally this idea of a personal god would fall into that category, just in pure anthropological terms), it's no longer focused primarily on people who are expressly immoral but just those who are unbelievers. I've said before, maybe or maybe not here on this blog, that religious institutions that generally seem to promote intolerance almost assuredly are invoking an emotional and not a spiritual response, but that's really beside this particular line of reasoning, somewhat.

The point was that in the earliest stages of Western national organization (civilization, if you must), you find a god who it was believed expressly intervened in the practice of business and trade. In fact, that supreme god created this lesser god, Mithra, solely for this purpose. Within the context of the Ahura Mazda myth.

So, there's all of that. I've got farther to go with this idea, but we'll save that for part dos. Just a quick note about Eliade, who is a brilliant philosophical anthropologist with an incredible knowledge of the enthographic literature as it stood at the time of his writing, believed that one of the differences between 'the civilized' and 'the primitive' mind was that 'the primitive' held a much smaller portion of reality to be profane. Life was sacred in those times. I believe that this is related to the problem of scarcity, and that a certain problem of abundance (poorly distributed) is that sacredity, true religious symbology, and the spiritual experience have to be jettisoned in order to maintain a system whereby inequality is not only allowed but encouraged to go forth and multiply.

And this relates to the question of freedom, as appears to be Milton Friedman's central point. Here's an early formulation of a response that occurred to me this morning as I was running.

I am not free to break Usain Bolt's 200 meter record. The only way I could potentially be free to do this would be if I had been training since I was much younger, essentially narrowing a whole host of other potential free choice desires, such that in order to attain this one freedom I would need to limit my freedom to eat poorly or to not exercise or, more pertinent to my actual younger self, to not drink absurdly large quantities of beer. The analogic connection here is that the freedom to be unequal is and has to be the dissavowing of any real potential freedom of equality. There's no way to maintain absolute freedom in the reality of a world of opposites.

That spirituality can bring us beyond this world shouldn't be too much of a question. Certainly, the mystical tradition of all and every religious institution suggests this to be the case, but even in the mind of the mystic saint that state of beyondness can't be maintained indefinitely (with the exception of, for example, full on nirvana in Buddhism, which means you sort of don't really exist in this world anymore anyway [unless yr a Buddhisattva and come back to this side of the shore to help others across]).

So, we've got to choose. And we've got to figure out what our sacred freedoms are; are they inequality and the ability for the individual to amass untold and untoward amounts of wealth without regard for their fellow human beings? As I've said, I think this is a value that can only live in a thoroughly secular culture where the religious institutions have become idolic and corrupt. But now I'm sliding slightly into propagandistic expressions of the problem. And really losing the point as well.

And none of this is to say that the only way to limit this freedom is in the form of governmental intervention. We are all free to make the choice for ourselves that we will take the harder, less selfish road of devoting ourselves and our lives to the creation of a world and culture that values all and everyone equally and to putting that value of true equality into play in all its potential forms. The culture can change, it is free to, and we are free to try and change it. We are free to find our spirit, to bring our self back into harmonious relation with itself and the world, to stop pretending, heming and hawing about the restriction of personal choice, and to do what is right and necessary for the good of society and the world.

Okay so now I'm preaching a little. It is Sunday morning after all.

Yeah, that's enough for now. I'll come back later and see if I can't go farther into the historico-philosophical direction that I had in my head yesterday morning when I first started stringing some of these ideas together in my head after reading some few pages of Mircea's brilliant book, Patterns in Comparative Religion. That guy was no joke.

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