The art of good government is possible when people become aware of the spiritual principles underlying all life.

by Henryk Skolimowski 

Political institutions are a shadow of our souls. Put otherwise, political institutions express and embody the wisdom of the people of the time. If there is no such wisdom among the people, these institutions express their unwisdom. The state of our wisdom and the state of our soul are closely related.

 Our institutions do not work because our souls do not work. Our spiritual blight affects our individual lives and our institutions alike. Let us state it clearly. We cannot have good political institutions if our visions are cripplingly narrow and our wisdom lamentably limited. Thus, the road to good political and social institutions is by deepening our wisdom and by broadening our visions: which is to say by enlarging our souls. This is the only way. And there is no other way.

 Our technology is stupendous. Our technical instruments often dazzle in their capacity to perform. However, our political institutions cannot be conceived of as merely technical instruments. Perfect technical instruments are often perfectly insensitive to the human needs and desiderata. Wise politics needs much more than good technical tools. It needs empathy and deep understanding of our inner longings.

 What is then the right recipe for building a political system or for reconstructing a political system? Do not concentrate on merely reforming the institutions, especially by trying to make them into "perfect" technical instruments. Acquire wisdom. Mend and enlarge your visions. Go deeper into yourself. Then your institutions will work. And only then.

 Yet, here is the rub. It is one of the most difficult things for any people, to admit that their institutions do not work because of the smallness of their souls. For the institutions are most of the time conceived as being "out there", as instruments regardless of who we are. Yet, we must remember: these institutions are a shadow of who we are.

 We blame our institutions for our plight, for our dissatisfaction, for our unhappiness. Why? Because it is very hard for us to admit that we have the institutions we deserve, that we are responsible for these institutions, that they reflect our inner selves, that is to say, our inner worth. I am aware that the kind of statements I make are not welcome. Often they are ignored as annoying. Why? Because they pose too much challenge to ourselves. Yet, if these statements reveal the truth, then the conclusion is: don't blame institutions for what they are. Blame yourself for what you are. And don't hide. Hiding accomplishes nothing. Are you prepared to change yourself? No. So, don't expect the institutions to change. The institutions only reflect who you are, including your indolence, your lack of responsibility, your "mañana" attitude, your waiting for "Godot". Don't expect politicians and even political scientists to help you, for they are completely conditioned by the past and possessed by the collective unwisdom of our time. They cultivate your smallness. They think that by putting you into the cast of your smallness, you are comfortable there. Deep down you are not. Let us call the poet Goethe as our witness. He said:

To treat man as he is
Is to debase him.
To treat man as he ought to be
Is to engrace him.

Politicians and social scientists want to treat us as we are, constantly reducing us in our stature and possibilities. We know that we are pretty low in our lowest aspects. But this is not the ground for celebrating our humanity. We celebrate our humanity by aspiring to what is best in us, by attempting to become what we can potentially become, what we ought to be in the best sense of the term. Only then we enshrine our deepest humanity, give a testimony to who we truly are.

 Social scientists are obsessed nowadays with measuring. But what do they measure? To measure empirically our unwisdom, as expressed through our consumptive attitudes, is not a scientific confirmation of who we are. It is rather a sad capitulation of the scientific mind to the lower realm of human possibilities.

 When they work to our advantage, political institutions must lead the people, must be like great religious symbols to which we aspire. And while aspiring to them, we change ourselves in the process. It is thus clear that political institutions must not follow the people, especially, if by following the people, we mean reducing the people to their lower selves. For it does not help much if we create political institutions in the image of reduced people.

 To break this vicious cycle we need to ascend to a higher perspective, to a spiritual perspective from which we can see things more clearly and with a greater depth and understanding. Thus, we need to see that satisfaction and happiness also mean the inner peace and the nourishment of the soul. Some are allergic to the term "soul". Let us not be led astray by words. We are simply saying that there is inside of us this human core which is trans-physical and trans- biological. It has its needs and demands, the satisfaction of it is as indispensable to the meaning of our life as the oxygen is to our lungs. We know this truth well.

 Now, this human core, which has traditionally been called soul, is something without which our uniquely human life withers. Social and political institutions must safeguard all aspects of our being. If social and political institutions neglect our inner lives, or are in collision with our inner selves, then we whither. Such institutions are not worthy of our support and allegiance.

 I need not belabour the fact of the plight of present political and social institutions (particularly in the developed world) in providing the shelter for our spiritual life. To respond that these institutions are secular in character and that we live in a secular society is to obviate my argument and not to meet it. It is so, for two reasons. One is that our spiritual or inner life must not be confined to the religious life and religious institutions. The separation of the state from the church, of our civic institutions from our religious institutions does not mean neglecting and eliminating our inner lives, our spiritual quests, our inner core. Spirituality and religion must not be confused with each other or conflated with one another. To gaze at the stars and to see in them an immense temple does not require priests, church, or religion.

 The second reason is even more important. The so-called secular society, delivered on the wheels of material progress, may not be much of a society, if by "society" we mean such an arrangement of human life through which this life is enhanced and not dwarfed. If by the secular society we mean one in which" "homo homini lupus est" (man is wolf to a man); in which we witness the growing violence on the streets, and in the family, in which we witness the growing injustice as the poor become poorer and more dispossessed, then we might want to take a deep breath, pause for a while and ask: might it all not be a manifestation of the sickness of our soul? If our reason continuously deceives us and leads us astray, then we need to go deeper-to the structure of our wisdom and the state of our soul. For not infrequently our deeper maladies have their source there.

 We are so used to the idea that politics is the arena for the selfish, greedy, and rapacious, that we tend to forget and disregard the examples that prove just the opposite. These examples which show that politics is for the noble, selfless, high minded, and idealistic are numerous. There is much we can learn from these examples, if we choose to. More important still, they show that the politics as the exercise of the power of the soul is possible and that when it is practised thus, it brings about remarkable and positive results.

 In ancient times in China there lived a sage Kung-Fu-Tse, whose name has been simplified in the West as Confucius (551-479 B.C.). He was renowned for his sagacity, wisdom, impartiality, justice, and the capacity to see through the distant consequences of human actions. In due time he was invited by the king of Lu province to govern the kingdom. And he ruled for twelve years with the blessing of the king and the growing happiness of the people, showing what wisdom can do when consistently applied in social-political affairs. Confucius' rule was so successful, while the prosperity and peace of the people in the kingdom was growing, that the neighbouring kingdoms were astounded and became envious. This was a clear demonstration that politics could be a noble and beautiful art benefiting all. Then one of the neighbouring kings somehow bribed the king of Lu, whom Confucius worked for, and suggested that Confucius should be sent for a holiday for one year. So he went for a holiday. He was not assassinated nor did he die in ignominy. But he never returned to rule again, though he wanted to.

 For Confucius the ideal consists of the harmony between the superior individual and a well ordered society, which is based on the mutual moral obligations of the five basic human relationships between: ruler and minister, father and son, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife and one friend to another. Government is to be conducted through the ruler's moral example. The difference between the mature man, whom Confucius calls a superior man and an immature man, whom he calls an inferior man, is that for the former the rule is moral principle.

 One of the conclusions is that we need to mature spiritually to produce such people as Confucius and then we need to allow them to show us what the art of government is about. For what is going on with present governments is not so much that they are led by unwise and often selfish people (which is undoubtedly true) but that the people who elected them are unwise not to know and not to demand any better.

 Confucious' teaching has survived over two millennia and is still inspiring people. It does not really matter that Confucius was Chinese and his teaching may be more resonant with the Chinese psyche than the Western one. What matters is that he is a shining example of a philosopher who built his philosophy on spiritual principles and yet was capable of applying this philosophy to practical and political affairs with such a success that he can truly be called a philosopher king.

 We should not conclude too rashly that the political influence of Confucius ceased with his death. It still continues. Nowadays some Asian nations, after tiring of American domination and western decadence, which is imposed on them as modernity, return to the Confucian teaching in order to combat what they consider as an ideological imperialism. In places like Singapore, but not only, the respect for the traditional Confucian values is said to be the backbone of the social cohesion as contrasted with western alienation and disintegration. Thus, the political legacy of Confucius lives on and is seen as remarkably sustainable. Why? Because it is based on something deeper than the expedient values of political manipulation.

 Ashoka was an Indian king who ruled in the third century B.C. (269-232). He was a man endowed with an extraordinary strength and physical and spiritual powers. Through his military genius and extraordinary physical prowess, he conquered all the neighbouring kingdoms and truly unified India at the time. And then one day, after a huge battle, seeing the rivers of blood running in front of him he woke and decided that this was not the way. He became a follower of the Buddhist creed of compassion and non-violence. He did not relinquish his kingdom. He did not run to a cave in the mountains to repent. Instead he ruled as a spiritual monarch. And remarkable indeed was his rule and his achievement.

 First he built 84000 stupas (Buddhist monument/chapels) in all the villages and towns of India. Each of them was a visible commandment that compassion, social justice, and non-violence were to be the foundation of society. Then he carved in rock his famous edicts proclaiming that social and political life was to based on the spiritual foundations of justice and compassion.

 Only in the nineteenth century did we start to rediscover the famous Ashoka edicts. So far, we have found over forty of them. How many are still buried in the jungles or under the mounds of earth we do not know. But what we did discover is impressive enough! The rocks carved by Ashoka' 5 messengers are as far apart as Pakistan and Burma, some two and one half thousand kilometres. Communication and transport were not easy at the time; they are still not easy on the Indian subcontinent. Yet, with remarkable will and persistence, Ashoka wielded his vast empire into a political organism based on Buddhist philosophy.

 He did not create a religious state run by the monks, although he sometimes considered himself a Buddhist monk. He was a truly enlightened monarch. He ruled single handedly through his various emissaries who ran from one end of his empire to another carrying his messages and overseeing that justice and non-violence were observed. Though Buddhist to the core, the language of his messages, and of his edicts, were often not explicitly Buddhist. The country was still dominated by the Hindu Brahmins-particularly in remote villages and these were not to be antagonized. Yet, Ashoka did more in spreading Buddhism throughout the Indian sub-continent than all the Buddhist monks taken together.

 The remarkable thing is that Ashoka's purpose was not to be a religious missionary. His purpose was to establish good government based on the principles of justice and non-violence. As it happened, he succeeded in both: in establishing good government and in spreading a deep spiritual awareness among his people, an awareness which was based on Buddhist principles.

 Ashoka's case (and also the one of Confucius) is more telling and more paradigmatic than we are usually aware. It is simply not the case that these were two wise men who stumbled on good principles which helped them to rule. The spiritual principles and good government are part and parcel of each other. As the spiritual awareness spread and became accepted by the populace, good government became possible and indeed inevitable. Here is an important conclusion: the art of government for the people and with the people is possible when people become aware of deeper spiritual principles underlying all life and the forms of sustaining government.


Professor Henryk Skolimowski is the author of 9 books and more than 200 articles. He is presently teaching at Lodz Polytechnic Institute in Poland, where he holds the Chair of Ecological Philosophy. This article is an extract from his forthcoming book.