Tai Ji Men displays and practices true solidarity, based on a deep sympathy for the human being.
by Marco Respinti*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Learning Solidarity from Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on December 20, 2023, United Nations Human Solidarity Day.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 22nd, 2023.
A simple, yet not simplistic—hopefully not simplistic—, way to define “solidarity” is to describe it as the mutual sympathy that calls to action, which is generated among the members of a human group by a sense of commonality of interests and aims. Three essential elements are evident here: community, sympathy, and action. They are the foundations of the very concept of “solidarity” as an irreducible complexity, or a system whose interacting parts cannot function if one of them is removed.
“Solidarity” is in fact not just a synonym of “commonality.” It is not yet another way of expressing an inactive and passive sympathy for human beings. Nor is it acting for the sake of mere activism. Solidarity is the help that human beings offer each other in case of need, perceiving—even before understanding it through a conscious act of reason—that where and when one person suffers, all persons suffer. Thus, while “solidarity” is not just another word for “community,” it is one of its essential traits. A human group is a vibrant community when its members share a commonality of origin, destiny, and suffering (or at least of trials).
In this sense, the concept of “solidarity” helps enlighten a classical topic of moral and political philosophy: the organic correspondence between human beings and society. This topic is normally addressed by stating that society is not just a sum of individuals, but a living body, whose parts, each having its own role and unalienable value, make the organism an irreducible complexity.
Known in a variety of versions, and also suffering degradations, this principle has been formulated by claiming that society is a human being written large, or, in Greek, a “macroanthropos” (literally, a “huge man”). The concept probably originated with the Greek philosopher Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE), who addressed it in its “The Republic.” The word Plato used for what we today translate as “society” is “polis.” This is a unique Greek word, conveying the idea of a self-sustaining political and communal body that is at the core of the Western concepts of “public” and “politics.”
Many translations of the word “polis” have been proposed and are used, and all of them are only partially correct. We always use them at our peril. As frequently happens in Western languages, the best translation of the Greek word “polis” is the Latin concept of “res publica,” another expression quite difficult to translate. We could render it as “the public thing,” or the complex of human public activities considered as an organic whole. A distinction between state and society needs, however, to be affirmed to prevent possible confusions. In fact, the best translation of the title of Plato’s book “The Republic” is “Res publica:” not a technical book on the republican regime, but a noble discourse on all that concerns the public sphere of human beings.
American thinker Russell Kirk (1918–1994) was among the few commentators, and possibly the only one among non-specialists, to underline that Plato’s “The Republic” is not a blueprint for political action. It is rather a philosophical metaphor on the ideal city of men and women. It must not be taken literally, but it serves its purpose best when considered as a mythical description of the theoretical coordinates that should limit and shape public life to obtain the highest level of decency for human beings. Plato’s endeavor in “The Republic” is in fact highly moral. In that book, the Greek philosopher aims at setting the standards that a community of human beings must observe to prosper, benefiting each of its members. And Plato aptly describes the “polis” as a “macroanthropos.”
This moral understanding of public life has been significantly upheld in modern times by German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin (1981–1985), and, at his school, by Kirk himself in America and Emmanuele Morandi (1961–2015) in Italy, whose untimely death deprived the history of thought of further important developments in this field.
One interesting development, out of many possible, would be exploring the “res publica” as a “macroanthropos” in terms of solidarity. The underlying assumption of seeing society as a human being written large is in fact that the order in the human soul corresponds to the order in public life. Kirk repeated this same concept, with different wordings, many times in his works. He often rendered what in Plato’s Greek language is “polis” with the modern English word “commonwealth.” This is probably one of the best ways to translate the Latin concept of “res publica” as it implies the quest for “the common good of the community.” Solidarity is a possible desirable development of this reflection on human beings and their public life.
A disordered society—to use Kirk’s language—is both a mass and a mess of disordered souls. A band of disordered souls can hardly give birth to a justly regulated community. Order, both in the individual soul and in society, is the science of what comes first and what comes next in sight of decent behavior in all occasions. Order promotes a viable fellowship among human beings, a meaningful social existence, even a personal saintly life. It is a matter of priorities and hierarchy, of choices and waivers. Only an ordered community of ordered souls can feel the moral call to share one’s neighbor’s burdens.
I am afraid that the average contemporary use of the term is less precise, but the true meaning of “solidarity” can be apprehended as the tangible sign of fraternity among human beings. It is an impossible task if the human being is not respected as an intangible value. Thus, solidarity is not only an action in favor of a fellow human being. It is proximity, vicinity, and care for others in name of that inestimable treasure that is human nature.
In Catholic social teaching, solidarity is one of the two pillars of a just and ordered society. The other is subsidiarity: it prevents the state from becoming tyrannical and limits it to serving the common good that a human and humane society, founded on the natural family, is able to detect. It is interesting to consider that all the grand edifice of social and public life, which Catholic social teaching addresses in all its moral nuances and angles, rests on just two principles. One, subsidiarity, is vertical: it addresses the question of power and its limits from the basic bricks of society to its summit. The latter is horizontal, being the measure and the instrument of a good life for each of us and for all. Together, they draw public life, and bless it, in the form of a cross, which of course is the central symbol and rationale of Christianity, in a way that reminds American-English poet T.S. Eliot’s (1888–1965) constant reflection on the intersection of the timely and the timeless in history.
Tai Ji Men has much to teach here. As a “menpai” (similar to a school) of self-cultivation, it promotes the order of the soul. As a school of spiritual teachings, Tai Ji Men knows that human beings are not only material objects, but a mysterious union of flesh and spirit, at whose center and core is conscience. For Tai Ji Men, conscience is the key to reach the order of the soul and the compass to orient one’s life toward its best achievements. Many dizi testify how practicing qigong under the guidance of Dr. Hong Tao-tze, Shifu (of Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men, led them to overcome problems and anxiety, anger, and fear, reshaping their life in a more fulfilling way.
In fact, this is also a political stand. The order of the soul that Tai Ji Men teaches affects people individually, and those transformed individuals affect society, building a better “polis.” The intimate relation between the order of the soul and the order of the commonwealth is naturally at the center of Tai Ji Men’s teachings and it naturally becomes the dizi’s social goal even before they reflect on it. Then reflection guided by conscience comes in, and the order of the world becomes a conscious and desired object under the guise and name of universal peace and love through mutual respect and understanding. In this sense, we can say that Tai Ji Men does see the “polis” as a “macroanthropos.”
The care that Tai Ji Men dizi show for their fellow humans, often bringing material relief in case of disasters, natural or man-made, is a case in point. Tai Ji Men displays and practices true solidarity because its care is based on a deep sympathy for the human. It also teaches true solidarity by exemplifying how solidarity would be reduced to mere agitation if deprived of a deep sharing of human suffering. Of course, in case of need, Tai Ji Men dizi bring help, food, water, medicines, but they never forget to uplift the souls. As many Christian missionaries do, when they first help the poor materially, but address their spiritual needs soon thereafter, and possibly at the same time.
It is for this reason that the unjust suffering that Tai Ji Men Shifu and dizi have been enduring for so many years is a supreme violation of the core principles of a just society. It is a trespass on subsidiarity, when some corrupt branches of the Taiwanese government tread on a voluntary community of citizens by exerting a tyrannical power. It is also a violation of solidarity, which requires us to offer consolation to those who are in dire situations.
Let me share a final feeling. Most probably, the corrupt persecutors of Tai Ji Men in Taiwan are those who have more to learn from Tai Ji Men.