The Politics of the Soul

THE POLITICS OF THE SOUL – JOHN MILBANK – PAPER PRESENTED TO THE TEMENOS ACADEMY – 1st November 2012

This is my remembrance / reworking of some of the many ideas in Prof Milbank’s paper.

Prof. Milbank started by stating that the soul (psyche) is what makes us human, it is the human realm par excellence. He cited Aristotle’s ideas from De Anima, talking about the bodies of humans and animals being the nature of their souls, and yet the soul as transcending mere matter.

He then moved on (or back) to Plato, citing the ‘Gorgias‘ where Plato relates politics to the soul, saying that politics is to the soul as medicine is to the body, and that the politician’s function is to make people’s soul’s good just as the doctor’s function is to make people’s bodies well. Politics is therefore psychological, but it is about collective psychology and the collective good, so the politician does not correspond to the modern psychologist who treats individuals.

Plato warned against the possibility of a type of personal political narcissism in which the individual learns too well to govern himself and subdue his passions, just for its own sake. Plato compares this to a general who undertakes unnecessary battles for the sake of glory.

Plato prefers to look upwards and outwards, locating the individual soul as an active participant in the polis (city), with the political function helping to minister to the individual’s soul just as the individual enriches collective life. Psychology is therefore political.

Plato talked about the importance of ritual, myth and liturgy in connecting the polis to the Divine, and of the necessity of a religious community within the polis. In Plato’s case this was the class of religious philosophers, but Prof. Milbank said it could be the Sangha, the Ummah, or the Ecclesia depending on the culture. This religious community performs a public function and is neither secret nor elite.

Prof. Milbank provided an extensive critique of liberalism. He argued that 17th century liberalism was a reaction to the European religious wars of the preceding centuries. These had been wars over ‘the truth’, with different Christian sects fighting for their own versions. Liberalism sought to create a neutral metaphysical space as a basis for public life, replacing feudalism which had based itself on a particular view of the human soul in relation to God. But liberalism’s neutrality has degenerated into a materialist metaphysics and is no longer a neutral space, and my displacing the soul from public life it has displace humans. Liberalism is therefore anti-humanistic.

Within the modern and post-modern world the human has become debased or at least marginalised from public life. Classical economics, with doctrines such as diminishing marginal utility, does not take account of truly human phenomena pertaining to the soul such as sentiment and virtue (whose utility does not diminish as they increase). Instead it emphases the trivial functions of human base matter such as food, shelter and copulation. Materialist ideologies appeal to base human instincts such as hatred of the other (immigrants, classes, races, religions). On the other hand the individual is disempowered from political involvement through liberal doctrines such as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ which pretends that these occasionalist, individual consumption patterns have some aggregated force. Even when liberalism attempts transcendence it debases humans further in its search for a soulless ‘brave new world’ of augmented bio-technological humans. Milbank calls these two modes of liberalism disenchanted immanence and transcendence.

Milbank characterised as ‘optimistic’ the pre-liberal Christian idea that people are fundamentally good even though this goodness is obscured by sin. He characterised as ‘pessimistic’ the Hobbesian liberal idea that people are fundamentally bad and must be restrained if we are to avoid the natural state of the ‘war of all against all’. He noted that Rousseau painted a more optimistic liberal picture of isolated people being good in the state of nature. However, following Rousseau, liberalism tends to rely on a system of contracts to bring about good behaviour once people are placed together, whereas non-liberal traditions like anarchism and socialism point to natural existing societies as manifesting harmony without the need for contracts.

Milbank promotes an ‘enchanted transcendence’ which he believes is the message of William Blake and other Romantics. He contrasts this with the ‘enchanted immanence’ of Spinoza and Goethe which he suggests compromises the (Western) monotheistic tradition. However Milbank’s vision is Christo-centric.

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Posted on November 1, 2012, in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Very interesting. I realize you’re British and using terms that have different meanings from what they are in the US. “Liberal” as you use it seems to fit many of the right and even far right economic conservatives of America. And the spiritual progressives here seem to me to be looking for a way to bring soul back into the political sphere.

    Anyway, good post!

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