“Meekness as a Dangerous Activity”: Witnessing as Participation

in Courting the Abyss

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print April 2005 | ISBN: 9780226662749
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226662756 | DOI:
“Meekness as a Dangerous Activity”: Witnessing as Participation

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Liberalism and Marxism both exalt activity as the highest human excellence. Civil disobedience, in contrast, knows the power of passivity, the ways that the sheer objecthood of human bodies can embarrass the levers of power into motion. Though it is often mistakenly equated with liberalism, transcendentalist politics has a liberalism that lacks the material and spiritual conditions of communication, and which is free of the sometimes merciless absolutism that can infect both Marxism and liberalism. This chapter highlights a tradition of political–ethical thought and action often mistakenly classed as a simple branch of liberal thought, the transcendental politics of passivity imagined and practiced by Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Václav Havel. This tradition is the most robust strain of thinking about liberty in deeply democratic conditions for a world where critical rationality, cultural relativism, and anti-modern fundamentalism are duking it out.

Keywords: Marxism; liberalism; transcendentalist politics; democratic conditions; anti-modern fundamentalism

Chapter.  16781 words. 

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