Tuesday 26 December 2023

Seeking power entails opening ourselves to manipulation by power

It is seldom explained explicitly; but experience of life teaches that those who seek power are thereby made more vulnerable to power

In general terms: those who seek to manipulate the world thereby open-themselves to manipulation by the world. And this applies whether the power sought is physical-material, or spiritual.

There are many routes and reasons by which this happens; but the general principle seems solid. It is a Faustian-type bargain; as if reality tells us:

"Yes, you can impose your will on the world, to some extent; but the price you must pay for this privilege is that your will itself becomes subject to elements within the world". 

Why this should be a kind-of law is perhaps abstractly explicable in terms of engagement: insofar as we engage with the world (for whatever purpose), we are Just Are engaged-with the world! And influence flows both ways, whether we like it or not. 

Another way to consider this interaction is relevant to the role of churches and religious structures such as priestly hierarchy, ritual, symbolism and sacred scriptures. These structures can generically be considered as intermediary between human and divine: a set of intermediary media. And these media are charged with power by the religious believer, who then seeks to lead the religious life by their intermediary power. 

Thus a religious symbol is effective in achieving its life-changing goals, only when and if it is made powerful; and when we yield to that symbol the ability to affect us. In a Good religion, that symbolic power will (on the whole) be wielded upon-us for our net-Good, and that is why we open ourselves to symbolism. 

But when the religious symbolism is used with evil intent, it has power over those who have (to some significant extent) previously yielded to it that personal power, and implicitly opened-themselves to the power of that symbol. 

(This is the principle behind a Black Mass, or other forms of subversion using distorted but traditional Christian symbols and rituals.) 


If we consider this issue very generally; it also applies to secular and physical power. At a material level; anyone (say a monarch or dictator) who intends to impose his will on society, must do so via "human technologies" such as powerful armies, police, spies, and bureaucrats; and by doing so, he becomes the subject of manipulation (individually, and in combination) by these same powerful institutions. 

This is a Big Problem in a world and society of increasingly-evil corruption, where all intermediate institutions, media, symbols, rituals... that whole world of abstractions and things by which we have traditionally related to Reality - gets subverted, destroyed and/or inverted. 

In a corrupting world; those entities by-which we sought power to do Good, to our-selves and to the world, are turned-against us - and with a power that we have previously given to them. And that power strikes home exactly because we have previously (but originally for Good intentions) made ourselves open-to it. 

So; in battling the evil manipulations of The World; we are also turning-against our-selves: turning-against our own former convictions and intentions. 

We are (inevitably) dis-engaging-from The World; and eschewing power - even the attempt to impose power on the world.  

It strikes me that this perspective may help us to understand why so many people are incrementally apostatizing from Christianity - and also why they seldom realize they are doing-so.  


Spurspright said...

Indeed, if you play any game, you risk losing at it, but, we should still play games.

I was created to behold beauty, create beauty, and become beautiful. When I see the beauty that came before me, both natural and artificial, I am inspired to love and awe, and it makes me want to contribute.

For me to do that, I need to become powerful. I need the power to create!
The more powerful I become, the more I pursue my divine destiny, the more godlike I become. There's no arrogance in that. I know that I will never be greater than what gave birth to me, but, the more powerful I become, the more I become like it.

There are many paths to the divine; many ways in which to be powerful, and all of them are primarily ennobling rather than corrupting, if the motivation is toward power over oneself.

Power over oneself has the side effect of power over other things: the chemist has the power to understand the mechanics of the world, gymnasts have the power to make their bodies do things, etc, but, if power over other things is the primary motivation, the risk for corruption is greater (although it can still be fine. If you want martial power not because the art of fighting has beauty, but because you just want the power to punch people out, you can still want to just punch people out in a moral manner).

As you point out, symbols are corrupted in an attempt to attack the people who care about them. Language is also (re)defined with dishonourable intention, because everyone uses language, so it's a vector for attack.

However, if I learn and use language for the love of language itself, to write poetry, and if I partake in the shaping of my language to preserve and improve on it for me and other language users to enjoy, then I really won't be corrupted in any way, because my will to power is primarily internal: I want the power to use language well, and to create with it.

It also helps to consider what you are doing and to be aware of attempts of manipulation. This lets you continue to use and enjoy symbols more safely. A symbol itself is ultimately meaningless beyond the meaning you give to it, so using it will never inherently be corrupting, unless you allow it to be.
For example, I am a swastika enjoyer (also known as the tetragammadion and the hooked cross), but I am not a nazi and don't particularly care about nazism. The symbol to me is powerful because of its ancient meanings. I consider its modern political associations to merely be a flash in the pan.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sp - The purpose of this post was to encourage those who hold your views to re-examine them more critically and deeply; and maybe recognize that they are self-deceptive.

Francis Berger said...

"Yes, you can impose your will on the world, to some extent; but the price you must pay for this privilege is that your will itself becomes subject to elements within the world".

The novelist Stephen Vizinczey came to a faintly similar (purely materialistic) conclusion by observing that "Power weakens as it grows."

Vizinczey argued that power spreads rather than grows because it requires more and more people to support or uphold it. This increasing number of people also increases Chance (the people who support the spreading power might not follow orders, might make demands on the powerholder, may act as gatekeepers to further levels of power, may directly challenge the power, might be incompetent, etc.) The individual's power is contingent upon the World and others. This increasing number of people also increases the likelihood of unexpected outcomes and cockups.

Vizinczey also claimed that Time helped weaken power as it spread. His point was that "power spreads" expanded the probability of chance interfering, especially over Time. Thus, enforcing your will was about more than dominating people -- it required dominating the "situation" -- the sum total of events. But situations are like the World -- dynamic rather than static.

Vizinczey ascribed the dynamism to chaos and randomness, but the phenomenon makes far more sense from the Christian perspective of agency and freedom.

Bruce Charlton said...

Frank - Yes, I think this aspect of physical/ material power is true, but probably well known already.

But I wanted to express it as a subset of a much more general phenomenon that occurs whenever we relate to the world via any "symbolic system" - which is how nearly all Men have related to the world *spiritually* for many centuries, indeed some thousands of years.

I am trying to understand the vast scale and pervasive nature of spiritual failure in our times; which is perhaps partly related to this change.

The realm of intermediary phenomena - symbols, rituals, scriptures etc - as well as institutions, corporations, organizations - has been incrementally and thoroughly corrupted/ destroyed/ inverted by a global level "Establishment" small number of deeply evil people and entities.

My point here is that this corruption does not just affect the perceptible institutions - such as churches - but the whole way of relating to reality by words, symbols, rituals, methods/ systems of meditation and spiritual discipline etc etc.

So (for instance) science as an institution is top-down controlled and corrupted (e.g. by financial, social, political, media, legal mechanisms); but also that whole basic philosophy of understanding/ predicting/ controlling the world via intermediate abstract hypothetical entities, models, mathematical formulations etc...

*All that* has substantially broken-down; as the human, mental, spiritual investment in such intermediaries has been turned against the human bodies/ minds/ spirits who are trying to use them to gain power over reality.

Francis Berger said...

"*All that* has substantially broken-down; as the human, mental, spiritual investment in such intermediaries has been turned against the human bodies/ minds/ spirits who are trying to use them to gain power over reality."

I agree. I suppose we could refer to this as the crisis of the symbolic. We are being forced to confront this now. I’ll defer to Berdyaev, who posits that symbols, as intermediaries, belong to objectivization rather than true realization. That is, symbols are signs of reality, but they are not reality itself because there is no reality in the object.

We either embrace the corruption of the symbolic – wittingly or unwittingly – or find new ways to connect to reality. I posit that this is where direct knowing becomes indispensable – the awareness that things, objects, and symbols do not give reality its meaning because meaning is homogeneous with the subject.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Yes, that's it.

I would add that symbols (etc) were once (and for a long time, albeit dwindling for many centuries, apparently) THE way to connect with reality; but in recent years there has also been the problem of increasing alienation.

For considerable periods; people found symbol use pragmatically effective (eg in magic, later science) but at the cost of having no spiritual participation (active contact) with the world.

*Now* we are not only alienated by our reliance on symbolism, but it doesn't even "work" anymore - and has been overwhelmed by the totalitarian world of bureaucracy and mass media.

As you say, we find ourselves in the position that we either seek Direct connection with reality; or else we join the swelling mass majority, as become alienated puppets of totalitarian manipulation.

Spurspright said...

Symbols are just a kind of language, or perhaps I should say that language consists of a kind of symbol.
I will not stop using language just because

1. Evil people say evil things with it
2. Evil people try to corrupt language

I still need to use language.
You talk about every person needing to account for his own spirituality. This is true, and it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be spiritual. Symbols and language are the same.

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - Understand and ponder the above interchange with Francis Berger.