We’ll Take a Cup of Resistance Yet, for Absolutism is not the End

 

Clenched Fist licensed by Pixabay

 

by Danielle Youlan Luo

June 2018

(UBC Arts One LB3, Dr. Brianne Orr-Alvarez)

 

Rooted in scientific deduction and reasoning, Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of authority is a response to his understanding of human behaviours in the state of nature. Hobbes maintains that inherent human aversions and passions propel the disintegration of the state of nature into the state of war, since unregulated behaviours often result in the conflict of interest (Hobbes 76). Such structural conditions therefore render control necessary to prevent humans from infringing on one another’s right to survive (Hobbes 75). The existence of the Leviathan, an all-powerful sovereign therefore, is essential to maintain peace and prevent men from living a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 76). The absolute power of the sovereign and the top-down style of governance is justified as citizens willingly enter the social contract to exchange obedience for safety.

Similar to Hobbes, Plato presents a top-down approach to authority in Republic as well. The central theme that Republic explores is justice. Through the Socratic debate, Plato defines that justice is only achieved when each does his designated role in the society; as such, surrendering the society to the authority of the philosopher kings is the most important step to take in building the Kallipolis, since the philosopher kings are the only ones capable of grasping the form of the good outside the cave and beyond the intelligible realm, while the rest of the population is often deluded by the reflections of the good (Plato 211).

While Hobbes tends to universalise men by their common fear of death, and Plato is inclined to categorise men by their distinct natural attributes, both tend to adopt a deterministic view of life and firmly believe that only highly concentrated and undivided authority can create the most satisfactory form of governance. In the political model constructed by Hobbes and Plato, resistance to authority does little but disrupt the rule of law. Nevertheless, Michel Foucault, Isabel Allende and Aravind Adiga take on a different view and convey the constructive influences that various methods of resistance can generate.

 

Knowledge: a Tool of Resistance

In Plato’s understanding, there is an absolute truth known as the form that governs the functioning of the world; this is the main reason why authority should only lie within the control of the philosopher kings, since they have the exclusive access to the form and the actual good to lead, while the others are often too blinded by the mere projection of the form onto something else (Plato 213). With the Allegory of the Cave, Plato presents the harsh but truthful reality that the majority of the population is trapped within the cave and unable to see beyond the limited “reality” offered by the cave (Plato 211). As such, the philosopher kings are naturally at an advantageous position to claim leadership, due to their inherent capacity to perceive and comprehend a greater spectrum of reality that lies beyond the cave. The justification for the privileged authority of the philosopher kings is also found in the Myth of the Metals, in which Plato asserts that god “mixed gold into those of you who are capable of ruling, which is why they are the most honourable; silver into the auxiliaries; and iron and bronze into the farmers and other craftsmen” (Plato 100). In Plato’s view, there are three main strata of people in the society according to their respective natural capacity and given role. Again, the view that Plato presents in the Myth of the Metals hints at his absolute approach to power. The Kallipolis under Plato’s description does not only retain control, but also seeks to exterminate any embryos of resistance (Plato 167).

Foucault dialogues with Plato’s absolutist view of the truth and authority in Discipline and Punish, in which Foucault presents a two-step process to resist the deterministic and absolute type of Platonic authority – being aware of how power shapes knowledge, and revising history to understand how conventions are formed. Contrary to the absolutism that Republic advocates, Foucault demonstrates a more relative and nuanced interpretation of why the majority of the population is unable to see the truth. Instead of attributing the inability to grasp truth to inherent inferior intellectual capacity as Plato does in the Myth of the Metals, Foucault argues that it is intentionally and carefully calculated knowledge production, instead of the natural capacity, that builds a barrier between the masses and the truth (Foucault 297). Foucault asserts that knowledge has a normalizing effect which calibrates the way we perceive the world. “We should admit rather that power produces knowledge; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Foucault 27). As such, knowledge production becomes a tool for those in power to entrench their position by institutionalizing ideas such as those presented in the Myth of the Metals by Plato, to reinforce the belief that some are born to be leaders, while the rest are meant to be followers.

At the same time, Foucault also presents a method of resistance against the absolute form of authority and power that Plato advocates. In Discipline and Punish, while knowledge is portrayed as an easily manipulated tool of authority, Foucault also argues that knowledge can considerably alter the existing power relations (Foucault 27). By highlighting the alarming implications of the consumption of institutionalised fields of knowledge, Foucault points out the importance of having the awareness that the more powerful groups can produce knowledge to establish certain beliefs and routines to influence the will of the larger population (28). Foucault argues that the process of knowledge production cannot be detached from the exercise of power, because the information and knowledge produced by the institutions are meant to influence our beliefs and behaviour in a way that entrenches the status quo of the existing power relations. Power becomes omnipresent in every aspect of life when the desire to entrench existing power relations influences and controls the very production of knowledge that shapes our reality (Foucault 206). Having the awareness that the perceived intellectual capacity of a group of people can be a manufactured reality is the first critical step to resist the absolute form of authority that Plato advocates.

Furthermore, Foucault reckons that the fluid nature of power relations renders power accessible to anyone with an informed understanding of how power and knowledge reinforce each other (Foucault 27). Even though power can produce institutionalised fields of knowledge, knowledge, too, can work against the more powerful by enlightening the less powerful. Clearly, Foucault presents a drastically different understanding of knowledge from Plato. While Plato is inclined to impose a doctrine of ideas to achieve justice, Foucault tends to encourage the resistance against any imposition of knowledge or ideas. We can infer from Foucault’s arguments that in order to prevent institutionalised knowledge from dictating our perception of the world, we have to revisit history consistently to enrich our understanding of how things have been normalised to be the way that they are today. It is necessary to go through history carefully to understand how the institutionalised fields of knowledge have been produced, because they should not always be taken as objective scientific truths that can be universalised. Foucault suggests learning history as the means for us to have a deeper awareness of power relations, so that we can work within them to resist the imposition of knowledge and to create substantial changes. In Foucault’s interpretation, therefore, the most meaningful form of resistance to Plato’s absolute approach to authority and power is the endless questioning of our experiences to ensure greater mobility within the power relation.

Isabel Allende echoes Foucault’s proposal to use knowledge as an effective tactic in her short story, Two Words. Through the main character Belisa Crepusculario, Allende portrays knowledge, education, and literacy as the most powerful tools that one could possess. Even though the process of education is a personal journey that one has to go through, the impact of having access to knowledge could result in greater political repercussions, especially when one wins hearts and minds with knowledge. In Two Words, before Belisa Crepusculario learns how to read and write, she was stuck in protracted impoverishment as she “grew up in an inhospitable land where some year rains became avalanches of water that bore everything away before then and others when not a drop fell from the sky and the sun swelled to fill the horizon and she world became a desert” (Allende 10). Allende portrays knowledge as the most practical way to escape poverty in Two Words. Furthermore, Belisa Crepusculario does not tap into her knowledge of words to make profits; instead, she utilises her literacy to influence the political trajectory of the Colonel. By giving the Colonel two words for his exclusive use, Belisa Crepusculario effectively alters the development of story by influencing the very desires of the Colonel, as “the flame of his desires was extinguished” upon hearing the two words from Belisa Crepusculario (Allende 16). Knowledge, therefore, is the equivalent of control, as it not only enables one to read and write, but also breeds wisdom and privilege. Belisa Crepusculario is clearly at an advantageous position in Two Words, as knowledge has given her the shrewdness to identify the words that will have a transformative impact on the Colonel. Through Two Words, Allende communicates to her reader that a practical way out of any deterministic conditions lies in knowledge.

Knowledge is not only a strategic tool that can be used against the imposition of power, it also breaks down Plato’s singular perspective that natural capacity and attributes are the only factors determining the trajectory of life. The access to knowledge provides an alternative perspective as it resists passivity and restores mobility in a society.

 

Metaphors: a tool of Resistance

Despite their rather divergent approaches to absolute power, Hobbes’s and Plato’s arguments largely overlap in their denunciation of the use of metaphors in their desired societies. In Leviathan, Hobbes describes metaphors as absurdities that “openly profess deceit, to admit them into counsel or reasoning were manifest folly” (Hobbes 39). Nevertheless, Cantapulo posits that despite condemning the use of metaphors, Hobbes relies heavily on metaphoric expressions to bring about his point (Cantapulo 20). From likening the sovereign and the state to a body, to using Leviathan the great sea beast itself as the title of the book, Hobbes disseminates ideas that are more understandable largely because of his use of metaphors. Cantapulo goes on to assert that while it is apparent that Hobbes’s dominant areas of interest lie in politics and geometry, “he must have a third dominant interest: metaphor itself” (Cantapulo 4). Musolff affirms the observation that Hobbes’s writing in the Leviathan is effective precisely because of the repeated use of metaphors. Musolff, however, argues that the contradiction between Hobbes’s clear denunciation of metaphors and his extensive use of metaphoric language has to be rooted in the possibility of a “deliberate paradox” (Musolff 5). By intentionally demonstrating through his own writing how effective metaphors are in leading the mind to a particular interpretation, Hobbes warns his readers against the deceiving power of metaphors, which can be abused to misrepresent and mislead. In the context of the Leviathan, what Hobbes fears, perhaps, is the possibility that metaphoric language can be used to incite disobedience to the absolute power of the sovereign.

Interestingly, Plato echoes Hobbes’s condemnation of metaphors in the Republic. Even though the gist of Platonic ideas and arguments is largely summarised by three metaphoric analogies that Socrates presents—the comparison between the form of the good and the Sun, the Line Analogy, and the Allegory of the Cave—Plato does not favour the use of metaphors. Speaking against Homer and the use of poetry which often relies on metaphoric expressions, Plato asserts through Socrates that poets merely “imitate images of the virtue and of all the other things they write about, and have no grasp of the truth” (Plato 304). Similar to Hobbes, Plato deems the use of metaphors as dangerous: metaphoric language is powerful enough to draw us away from the truth and focus only on the mere reflections of the form of the Good. In the political models constructed by both Hobbes and Plato, metaphors are considered distracting influences with little constructive outcome.

On the other hand, modern literature presents a vastly different attitude towards metaphors, which are often strategically used by authors to flush out deeper understanding of the texts. In The White Tiger, Adiga likens the helpless situation the majority of the Indian population faces to the example of the Rooster Coop, in which unquestioned loyalty and obedience naturally form a glass ceiling that maintains control and preserves the existing power relations. In the Rooster Coop, “Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space’ the whole cage giving off a horrible stench—the stench of terrified, feathered flesh” (Adiga 147). The detailed description of the coop illustrates vividly the extent of disgust, exasperation and vulnerability that one would feel being part of the working class in India. As such, Adiga narrows the gap between his readers and the unfamiliar Indian context, helps us to understand the environment that shapes Balram’s behaviours, and even earns Balram some sympathy.

The recurring use of metaphors in The White Tiger often sharply fits the situation in the novel. By likening the teashop workers to “human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed human in crushed uniforms, sluggish, unshaven”, Adiga makes a strong point regarding the poor quality of life of the Indian working class (Adiga 51). Furthermore, nicknames such as Country Mongoose, Stork, and Buffalo offer readers an immediate sensing of the personality of the characters, thereby building an immersive experience as readers attempt to understand the dynamics within the Indian working class. The animal avatars provide a clear and convincing representation of the demographic shaping the Indian society.

Contrary to Plato’s assertion that metaphoric description is detached from the truth and focuses merely on the reflection of the truth, the use of metaphors in The White Tiger draws readers closer to the reality in India. Kumari argues that the various metaphors that Adiga uses in The White Tiger “facilitate the understanding of Indian socio-cultural and politico-economic condition even to non-Indians as well as contributes in essence to the identity of the author among others” (Kumari 9). Metaphor therefore connects the dots between the foreign and the familiar as it explains the unknown with the known. Given the effectiveness of metaphor in communication, it is an impactful device in gaining empathy. While metaphor is not an active weapon that one can wield to cause immediate tangible damage to the existing authority, it remains a powerful tool that gives resistance momentum by winning hearts and minds. Stanley argues that “metaphor is a powerful tool for unlocking abstract ideas” and it “can assist us in disclosing the meanings tucked away inside competition ideologies” (Stanley 2). The implied meanings of metaphors, therefore, usually contain secondary commentaries that help readers to flush out subtler and hidden realities that are often drowned amongst other, louder narratives. In The White Tiger, Balram’s resistance and struggle against the suffocating structure of the Indian society becomes substantially more relatable and understandable with the consistent use of metaphors by Adiga.

Given the absolutism of the political structure that both Hobbes and Plato desire, metaphor can be a dangerous but effective tool that destabilizes absolute authority, as it fuels the silent but powerful resistance through writing.

 

Resistance in and as Chaos

So far, this discussion has been concerned with methods of resistance and how various authors present their preferred form of challenge to the absolute form of authority which both Hobbes and Plato advocate. While resistance in the form of knowledge and metaphors has been largely depicted in a positive light in this essay, it is not without flaws and complications. The most immediate impact of resistance is its challenge to the rule of law. Despite the fact that the rule of law is not always just, since it is subject to the manipulation of those in power, its existence does often ensure that the society is organized in an orderly manner. In the absence of an all-powerful authority, the civil society disintegrates into chaos and civil wars just like the Spanish Civil War portrayed by Hemingway’s description in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

In Hobbes’s view, resistance is unnecessary and problematic as it defeats the purposes of entering a civil society under a social contract to escape the state of nature. Hobbes posits that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man” (Hobbes 76). Evidently, any resistance that aims to weaken or remove the sovereign can easily degenerate a lawful civil society into a state of war. Hobbes goes further to discuss the toxic interpersonal relationships during the state of war and in the absence of a mighty authority: “Whatsoever therefor is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal” (Hobbes 76). Given the argument that distrust is a structural condition that men cannot avoid, the removal of a common sovereign through any methods of resistance therefore leaves the population susceptible to relational traumas that can widen social fault lines and tear apart the social fabric.

The condition in which “every man is enemy to every man” that Hobbes characterizes (Hobbes 76) is similar to Hemingway’s description of the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. During Pablo’s ruthless massacre of the fascists, the fascists were humiliated, tortured, and gradually murdered in inhumane ways that had little respect for life. Despite belonging to the same country, the political struggle in Spain between different factions magnified the “us versus them” mentality and caused people to turn against one another. Furthermore, Hemingway also illustrates how civil wars could impair intimate communal and family relations. The Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls was not only a violent struggle between factions of different political ideologies, it was also a struggle for survival by civilians who had no choice but to adopt the guerrilla life to survive the protracted violence perpetuated by the bipolar political forces. Through the description of Pablo’s brokenness and the distrust among Pablo and other characters, Hemingway acknowledges the depth of emotional and relational damage that a civil war could cause. Pablo’s pessimistic attitude towards Robert Jordan’s mission significantly strains the interpersonal relationships among the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Distrust is not only the main element that characterises the interaction between Pablo and other characters, it is also the trigger that almost results in Robert Jordan’s intention to kill Pablo. The greatest danger of civil wars, therefore, is not causing political turmoil, but polarising the society and disintegrating trust from within the society, as citizens adopt contradicting methods of resistance.

The consequences of mindless resistance that For Whom the Bell Toll illustrates, hence, serves as a counter-example of resistance without prudence and limit.

 

Conclusion

The authoritative style of governance that Hobbes and Plato propose provides the fundamental reason why human society should be organised under a form of leadership. However, the relevance of authority and focused control does not render resistance completely unnecessary. While Hobbes and Plato maintain that the rule of law and a hierarchical distribution of roles are necessary to facilitate the functioning of a society, there is no safety mechanism to ensure that power will never corrupt. The state that is strong enough to coerce is also powerful enough to corrupt; modern forms of resistance that Foucault, Allende, and Adiga suggest, therefore, provide a channel to keep sovereign authority in check. Even though resistance can potentially generate chaos and stray from order, it is a constructive existence that challenges the old dogmas to create new possibilities. Nevertheless, the extreme use of resistance that Hemingway depicts warns against the complete disregard for authority and reminds us of the value of prudence in the tug of war between authority and resistance.

Bibliography

 

Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger, Free Press, 2008, Print.

Allende, Isabel. “Two Words.” The Stories of Eva Luna. Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden. New York, NY: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991. Pp. 9-17.

Cantalupo, Charles. “Hobbes’ Use of Metaphors.” Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, vol. 12, no. 1, 1988, 20-32, https://www.jstor.org/stable/i40130430. Accessed 5 April 2018.

Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scriber, 2003. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York, Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Kumari, Archana. “A Study of Metaphors in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.” Literary Quest, vol.1, no. 6, 2014, 107-116, https://www.academia.edu/18248895/A_Study_of_Metaphors_in_Aravind_Adiga_s_The_White_Tiger. Accessed 5 April 2018.

Musolff, Andreas. “Metaphors as ‘Deception’: Thomas Hobbes and political metaphor.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237452637_Metaphor_as_Deception_Thomas_Hobbes_and_political_metaphor. Accessed 5 April 2018.

Plato, Republic. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2004. Print.

Stanley, Ivie. “Metaphors: Tools for Critical Thinking.” McGill Journal of Education, vol. 3, no. 1, 1996, 57-67, http://mje.mcgill.ca/article/download/8277/6205. Accessed 5 April 2018.