I’m just on my way to Norfolk for a retreat with the men I got ordained with three years ago. On the actual anniversary of my ordination, last Friday, I was with one of those men, my good friend Sanghasiha, sitting in a cafe in Dalston, east London, at the start of a 24-hour book launch.
“I am writing a mega-book about Hegel. It is a true work of love. This is my true life’s work.” This is how Slavoj Žižek, who has been called “the most dangerous philosopher in the West”, describes his book, ‘Less Than Nothing’. The format for the evening was an introduction to Hegel, from Iain Hamilton Grant, a talk by, and Q&A with, Žižek, and then a continuous reading from the book overnight and through much of the next day. Sanghasiha and I settled in for what was described, at the outset, as an ‘Hegelathon’.
‘Hegel’s fundamental insight, out of which most other aspects of his thought evolved,’ according to Bryan Magee, in ‘Wagner and Philosophy’, ‘was that reality is not a state of affairs but a process: it is something going on. This is true of every part of reality, and of every facet of our personal lives and experience. Even a material object is a process.’ So far so Dharmic.
Hegel ‘formalized his view of change in what he called the dialectic. Any state of affairs (the ‘thesis’) will ‘call into being contrary and incompatible states of affairs’ (‘antithesis’) which ‘destabilize it and cause it to change into something new’ (a ‘synthesis’). ‘Thus the underlying pattern of a process of perpetual change, never ceasing, is a constantly self-renewing triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.’
Magee goes on to wonder, though, ‘What is it that changes? What is all this change happening to?’ David Loy, in ‘Money, Sex, War, Karma’, gives a beautifully clear answer from ‘the ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna’, which chimes with both Hegel and Žižek:
‘The original Buddhist term usually translated as emptiness (Pali shunnata; Sanskrit shunyata) actually has [a] double-sided meaning. It derives from the root shu, which means “swollen” in both senses: not only the swollenness of a blown-up balloon but also the swollenness of an expectant woman, pregnant with possibility. So a more accurate translation of shunyata would be: emptiness/fullness, which describes quite well the experience of our own empty core, both the problem and the solution.’
Marx famously ‘made a marriage between Hegel’s dialectic and his own materialist view of reality, creating what came…to be called ‘dialectical materialism’. In other words, Marx believed that what was happening – and what it was happening to – was something material.
Iain Hamilton Grant asked the audience, before Žižek appeared, whether there was a difference between consciousness and reality. As far as I could see, just three of us put our hands up: me, Sanghasiha and someone on the far side of the room, who we speculated was probably also a Buddhist.
It seems to me that the view of reality as being essentially materialistic is held by as many on the radical left as on the hard right. Unless we find a way of challenging it, as the hugely entertaining, but somewhat obscure Žižek did during the launch, then we will continue to look in the wrong place for answers to our various crises.