Chapter 79: Keeping the Contract
“After a great enmity is settled,
some enmity always remains.
How to make peace?
Wise souls keep their part of the contract and don’t make demands on others.
People whose power is real fulfill their obligations;
people whose power is hollow insist on their claims.
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
“Do you know what the realm is?” Littlefinger asks Verys.
In one of the most gripping scenes in Game of Thrones, two of the king’s advisors debate the nature of power in the empty throne room.
“It’s a story we’ve agreed to tell each other over, and over, and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.”
“But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?” Verys asks. ”Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”
Our modern way of life is purportedly premised on a social contract. In the beginning, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau told us, there was a chaotic, lawless state of nature, and individuals came together and voluntarily agreed to respect each other’s rights and empower a government to for protection of life, liberty, and property. Yeah.
In political philosophy, a distinction is typically drawn between the ancients and the moderns. For the ancients, politics was about virtue, and the human being was understood as a dependent rational animal. The aim of the state and the laws is not just to provide physical safety and economic prosperity, but to make men good—that is, prudent, temperate, just, wise, and brave. Statecraft, in other words, is soul craft. One can only become good by developing the virtues requisite to being a good citizen, virtues inherited from an established tradition. By being liberated from his infantile and adolescent appetites and passions, man is freed for citizenship.
For the moderns, politics is about rights, and the human being is taken to be an independent rational agent. The aim of the state is to protect and respect the rights of the individual, not to promote a vision of the good. Harm no one, steal nothing, pay your taxes, and you may do as you please. The states cares not about your soul, only your actions. By being liberated from threats to safety and property and from the moral and religious constraints of inherited tradition, man is freed from oppression.
In the Republic, Socrates’ interlocutors ask him why they must engage in mythopoiesis (literally, myth-making) in designing the ideal city; specifically, why must they tell a story to the future rulers about where they came from. Put another way, they want to know why they have to make shit up. The reason, Socrates replies, is that we don’t know the truth about the gods and the origin of human beings, on the one hand, and that we cannot live without a story about such things, on the other. Given that we have to lie, we ought to tell a “noble lie” or “useful falsehood.” The story must be “true” not literally, but metaphorically, and metaphorically in the sense that it encodes the values and virtues most conducive to individual and collective flourishing given the limits of human nature.
A central conceit of modernity is that are all grown up and no longer need bedtime stories. We live, in Charles Taylor’s phrase, in an “immanent frame” in which we don’t feel the need to tether our values to a cosmic ground or superhuman source. This is reflected in the origin stories of modern political philosophy: there are no gods or demigods, just human beings rationally maximizing their utility, giving up their natural freedom to receive the benefits of sociality, and voluntarily entering into society. The state of nature is a pit, and the social contract is a ladder. This is how we “make peace.” The consent of the governed, even if tacit, is where the state derives its legitimacy.
This, of course, is a lie. Common sense would tell you so, as would all that we now know from evolutionary biology, primatology, psychology, and anthropology.
But it is not just false: it is also a story. Joseph Campbell wrote that “myth is public dream; dream is private myth.” Modernity sunders the mythos and the logos, privatizing mythology and presenting the public space as merely logical. The state, the laws, the public square, and civic institutions are framed as neutral, an amoral space for rational deliberation, but this is just a clever mask for a new mythos. This does not make it bad. Just disingenuous. It is a story—about good and evil and virtue and vice and what is worthy of worship and what is not—and should be acknowledged as such. Indeed, on balance, modernity offers a more useful falsehood than tradition. But it has major plot holes that traditional stories never had.
By abandoning the noble lie of myth, liberalism tears the social fabric that binds us together and opens up portals to what the show Stranger Things calls “the upside down.” Plato wrote that the danger with democracies is that they get drunk of the “unmixed wine of freedom.” When everyone is doing their own thing, following their private myth, and living out their own truth, the soul and society are uncoordinated. This breeds chaos, and chaos is a ladder for asocial entrepreneurs. Plato calls these figures the “drones,” vicious creatures that prey on people’s intellectual and moral weakness, exploit and exacerbate social divisions, siphon resources from the public, and nudge society toward a tyranny triggered by its fetishization of freedom.
A contract is a social construct. Its power depends upon the individuals making it. In the Bible, a contract is contrasted with the covenant that God makes with humanity. Its power depends upon something that transcends the individuals; it is a burden that they inherit, a creditor to whom they are indebted, and an obligation they can never fulfill. The whole point of the Christian story is that flawed humanity cannot through its own power reconcile with God, so God forgives them and encourages them to forgive each other.
After every enmity, great and small, is settled—whether a feud between neighbors or a social contract binding millions—some enmity always remains. If you convince people that they are atomic individuals with the right to bear rights, they will always find something to fight over. Even if their bellies and bank accounts are full, their streets and cities safe, they will invent imaginary rights to lay claim to. They will feel empowered only by expressing their sense of entitlement because they are untethered from the source of real power: the joyful discharging of duties inherited and not chosen. Every act of submission to tradition tethers the soul more tightly to its source.
The “de” in daodejing is sometimes translated “virtue,” and that gloss serves well here. The virtue of being forgiving, here, entails the recognition that we are all always already fucking up, breaking contracts, offending others, trespassing boundaries—and that is ok, because we belong to each other and to the world. Paradoxically, it is only through community that we can fully be ourselves.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.“