Tagged: Eastern wisdom

The Nine Laws by Ivan Throne book review

Dark Triad Man_The Nine Laws Cover

What if Julius Evola had written a samurai treatise? What if Lao Tzu had written a long, systematic book of philosophy instead of the short, poetic chapters of the Tao Te Ching? What if the famed, long-lost book On Nature by Heraclitus – he who was called “The Dark” – were to be found and published?

In each case, the book might look something like Ivan Throne‘s The Nine Laws. Published by Vox Day’s Castalia House imprint, The Nine Laws is unlike any other book I have read in recent years. Its most direct influences would seem to be the philosophical and military classics of ancient Japan and China. As I have written elsewhere, as a long-time student of these traditions myself, I find their study by Westerners to be problematic and full of many potential pitfalls, especially in the current era of Western cultural amnesia and self-loathing. But Mr. Throne does not come across as some sort of xenophilic hippie rambling about cosmic consciousness and oneness. In contrast, he went to Japan as a teenager and spent years learning the art of Ninjutsu. Then he returned to the West, where he has created a successful life for himself, and now wishes to pass on the fruits of his experiences to the younger generations. (Having never met Mr. Throne, I must work on the assumption that the personal details he offers of himself are true – a hazard of this “dark world” that we inhabit.)

In my experience, the Westerners who choose to study Asian martial arts tend to be all-around healthier individuals than those who attempt to practice Eastern religions like Buddhism, Daoism, or Hinduism. The former group still end up absorbing some of the principles and insights of the Eastern spiritual paths, because they are so embedded in the martial traditions of those cultures. But because the martial arts are of necessity a practical undertaking, their practitioners do not tend towards the dissolution of character and identity that certain religious or quasi-spiritual worldviews can bring about or even encourage. A man claiming to be “enlightened” might evade disproof of his claim through sophistry and cunning, and his disciples might be made resistant to any criticism of their master through brainwashing of one sort or another. But a man’s claim to be a warrior is easily challenged, and easily verified or disproven.

The writing style of The Nine Laws reminds me very much of William Scott Wilson’s translations from the Japanese of such classics as Hagakure and The Book of Five Rings. What I have always liked about the Eastern classics – as filtered through competent Western translation – is the terse presentation. Blunt statement of fact overcomes the feeble non-commitment that masquerades as open-mindedness in so much liberal discourse. As G.K. Chesterton said, an open mind is like an open mouth – eventually it needs to close on something.

The Nine Laws is not an easy read, nor is it meant to be. I know that I will read it again, and find something new that I missed the first time around. I might offer that as a criticism – that Mr. Throne moves too quickly through too many points and does not take enough time to elaborate – except that I might offer the same criticism of life itself, and in both cases I would be met with indifference. The dark world, as Mr. Throne terms this realm we inhabit, doesn’t care if you can keep up or not. Fortunately, a book, unlike time, can be studied at one’s own pace.

This is a book that deals in principles, not specifics. As in the teachings of Confucius, one is encouraged to grasp the root of situations in order to understand them deeply and discern the best way to work with them. To do this, a kind of meditative awareness is required, an ability to see things objectively, rather than being swayed by one’s individual passions, hopes and fears.

The foundation of the book is the system of nine laws that the author has created. If, like Nietzsche, you are distrustful of systems (“The will to a system is the will to a lie,” he said) you will be happy to find that the ninth law represents the collapse of the whole system into chaos, like the collapse of the world-order into kali yuga or Ragnarok. One of the paradoxes one must grasp is that the dark world does have laws, and one of those laws is that there are no laws. This section of the book reminded me of Peter Carroll’s writings on chaos magic, especially his notion that laughter is the supreme non-dual emotion.

It’s important that this truth of no-laws is the last of the nine laws. One of the mistakes that people are prone to in these times is jumping into advanced, esoteric views without the necessary foundation. In the martial arts, as in the fine arts, one strives to move beyond technique by mastering technique, not by ignoring it or skipping over it. As the otherwise detestable Aleister Crowley put it, “The way out is through.”

The other formula at the heart of the book is the “dark triad” of the personality traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. This was something I initially rolled my eyes at, since many of the discussions of this “dark triad” amount to little more than saying that chicks dig bad boys and therefore men should be jerks, as though the highest form of Western man were Patrick Bateman. However, for the Dark Triad Man, as Mr. Throne calls the ideal that he sets forth, that is not what it’s about.

Throughout the many chapters of the book are elucidations of different aspects of the traits called psychopathy, Machievellianism, and narcissism. In the course of reading, I began to see that, when distilled down to their essences, each of these traits is actually something else. In certain Buddhist schools, there is a teaching that negative emotions such as anger or fear are not inherently negative, but are actually just particular distortions of an energy that in itself is beyond the distinction of positive and negative.

In the case of the dark triad traits, the essence of psychopathy is detachment, which is the necessary basis for clear vision, as well as fearlessness. The essence of Machievellianism is wisdom, since the manipulation of events, for whatever purpose, requires skill and know-how – both of which are additional connotations of the Greek σοφός – as well as understanding of cause and effect, and which outcomes are truly desirable. As for narcissism, its essence is simply love. (This interpretation of the dark triad is my own, and Mr. Throne might disagree.)

This isn’t to say that the dark triad traits cannot become monstrous. They can, and in more ways than just those that the common notions of these words suggest. Detachment can become apathy. Wisdom can become empty, abstracted concepts that bring no profit to the wise. “In much wisdom is much vexation” says the Book of Ecclesiastes. As for love, modern liberalism and society give ample illustrations of the myriad ways that “love” can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused.

Love is, of course, the supreme virtue and even the identity of God in Christian theology. One question that kept going through my mind as I read the book is how the worldview espoused in The Nine Laws fits into the Christian view of the book’s publisher. While a Christian may differ here and there with certain points or interpretations that Mr. Throne makes, I think that overall his view of “the dark world” is actually very much in accord with the Christian notion of a fallen creation, ruled not by the God of love but by the father of lies.

The Nine Laws is not a book for everyone. It is addressed specifically to men, and specifically to men of the West, especially the final section which addresses the present crisis of European and American civilization. From the traditions that he was raised in, and from the traditions that he sought out in far corners of the world, Mr. Throne has crafted something uniquely his own, which he has now put before the world as something to be learned from. In this reviewer’s opinion, it is well worth the time and effort to engage his words and thoughts.


The Wisdom of the East?

Ornamental Bronze Plaque, Celtic Horse-gear, Santon, Norfolk (Detail)

Ornamental Bronze Plaque, Celtic Horse-gear, Santon, Norfolk

Inspired by the unique revaluation of Alan Watts on Counter-Currents, I want to share my reflections on two decades of studying the “wisdom of the East” which Watts helped to popularize in his lifetime.

Indeed, I remember when I read Psychotherapy East and West, my first Watts book and also one of the first books I read about Eastern philosophy and religion.  It spurred my interest immensely, and from there I was on to the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Dhammapada, and just about anything else I could get my hands on from the Taoist and Buddhist traditions.  In my teens and twenties I was adrift in the sea of postmodern malaise and meaninglessness which is contemporary America, reading philosophy and politics, looking for some kind of direction.  When I discovered the Tao Te Ching, it was like a revelation.

In contrast to the befuddling verbiage of Western postmodernist philosophers like Derrida and Deleuze, here were sparse words that cut straight to the heart of the matter – and the heart of what is beyond matter.  I recall that Joscelyn Godwin once wrote or said of Julius Evola that the conviction and certainty found in his writings were a refreshing antidote to the cowardice and confusion in most contemporary prose.  In the Tao Te Ching (which Evola translated into Italian) each chapter of the book seemed to me like a shining gem of wisdom; elusive, yes, and often obscure, but tantalizingly so.  What it seemed to point at accorded with my intuition that Truth was something that could not be captured in words.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.

Many readers will recognize this famous first line from the Tao Te Ching.  It is the most translated book in the world, probably in part because it is so short, and therefore requires less time and effort.  Indeed, many translations are done by people who don’t even read Chinese – they just read other English versions and compile their own based on them.  The translation I eventually came to favor is the one by Thomas Cleary, a real scholar who can in fact read Chinese.  I liked it not because of its accuracy – I had no way of judging its faithfulness to the original, not being a reader of Chinese myself – but rather because of the spiritual insight I felt it contained.

From reading Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and later many Buddhist sutras and commentaries, I came to feel that Asians, or at least the Asian traditions, really had something that the West lacked.  A lot of people feel this way, and have felt this way since at least the time of Alan Watts.  I’ve known more than a few Western Buddhists and Taoists in my day.  But what I neglected to realize was that I was not in fact reading the wisdom of Lao Tzu – I was reading the wisdom of Thomas Cleary.

The original Chinese text of that first line of the Tao Te Ching, which I’ve since studied along with the Chinese language (although I am not a professional scholar of either) reads, in transliteration: tao ke tao fei chang tao.  There is no way to literally translate Chinese characters, because Chinese is a pictographic written language and does not use a phonetic alphabet like Western languages.  But an approximation would be something like: Tao can Tao is not Tao.

Not quite so pretty, is it?  The whole book is like that, and the Chinese language itself is quite a different animal from any of the European languages.  Of course, there are subtleties and layers of meaning contained in the characters themselves – Ezra Pound wrote some interesting pieces on Chinese characters – but they resist translation, not least of all because they require the entire context of Chinese culture. 

Scholars and translators have long argued about the feasibility of translating between different European languages.  Can you really translate Baudelaire into English?  Etc. etc.  And that is referring to languages in the same Indo-European family, where words often have the same Greek or Latin roots.  When we are discussing translating a work from over two thousand years ago, from an entirely different family of languages and a very different culture, the task of the translator becomes that much more difficult.

Pound also produced some excellent translations of Confucius, but by “excellent,” I mean spiritually illuminating for Western people.  They are so because, although they are inspired by the writings of Confucius and his disciples, they are infused with the wisdom of Ezra Pound and his culture.  The same goes, I believe, for Thomas Cleary, and for all the other translators whose works I admire so much.  This is not to demean or take credit away from the original authors, but rather to give credit where it also due, for reasons that most don’t realize: to the translators of the West who give birth to new works in our native languages.

Every translator brings to his task his own identity, his own self, which is crafted from the particular spiritual, linguistic, racial and cultural milieus that he comes from.  Thus, his translation is always as much a product of his native traditions as of the foreign culture that he seeks to translate – if not even more so.  Furthermore, the readers will have that native culture as their exclusive reference point for interpreting the translated text, and thus the effects of the translation – to the degree that there are any – will be influenced by the native culture even more so.

This, I believe, points us in the proper direction for how to understand and use the wisdom of other cultures and traditions: as a means of better understanding, and perhaps even improving or rectifying, our own.  Indeed, this was how Rene Guenon intended his expositions of Eastern traditions.

For example, when we read James Legge’s translations of Confucius speaking about virtue and piety, we do not hear these words in a vacuum.  We hear them in the context of our own cultural tradition, which has taught us specific understandings of these concepts.  We can and should be enriched by what Confucius/Legge have to say on the matter – but we should not mistakenly believe that we are imbibing pure, unadulterated Confucian tradition.

The field of Eastern studies is interesting for a number of reasons.  Aside from the fact that it is a profound cultural and philosophical tradition in its own right, there is also a mysterious common ancestor between the wisdom traditions of East and West, which is the Sanskrit language.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, European scholars began to suspect that Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, was related to Greek and Latin.  Their suspicions have long-since been confirmed, and decades of Indo-European studies have illuminated some of the similarities between not only IE languages, but IE religions as well.  The pioneering works of Georges Dumezil stand out, as well the short study by Hans F. K. Gunther and, in our own time, the works of Alexander Jacob.

The realization that Europeans had an organic connection to India led to an explosion of interest in Indian religion and philosophy in the 19th century.  Schopenhauer wrote:

We may therefore hope that one day even Europe will be purified of all Jewish mythology.  Perhaps the century has come in which the peoples of the Indo-European group of languages will again receive the sacred religions of their native countries; for they have again become ripe for these after having long gone astray.

Seen in this light, the “journey to the East” which many Western people have made in the last hundred, but especially the last fifty years, embracing yoga and Buddhism and the like, might actually be, in a strange way, an attempt to return home, to a wisdom that is closer to that of their distant Indo-European ancestors.  The danger, though, which is all-too-obviously real, is that this organic connection will remain unconscious, covered over with the xenophilia and self-hatred which has become endemic in Western peoples, and which are too often the main motivating factors in their grasping at the wisdom the East.