The other day in conversation with a journalist from Germany I was introduced to a new phrase, ‘spiritual democracy’.
“What do you think about spiritual democracy?” she asked me. I confessed that I’d never heard that term before and that I didn’t know what to make of it.
The phrase stuck in my mind, however, and I began to see some connections between the political system we call democracy and that quest for a higher form of consciousness which goes by the name of spirituality.
At first, spiritual democracy seems like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Democracy belongs to the worldly sphere of politics, to the hustle and bustle of elections, to the rousing rhetoric of manifestoes and agendas.
The spiritual belongs to the elevated place of the transcendent, beyond the distracting tumult of the here and now.
So how can the two be yoked together?
Then I thought of the life and times of Tom Paine, the 18th century English political philosopher and activist who coined the name ‘The United States of America’.
Citizen Paine was an odd chap indeed. A self-styled `revolutionist’, in order to make a living he was, in turn, a cobbler, a tobacconist, and a maker of women’s corsets called ‘stays’ which were highly fashionable at the time.
Unable to make an adequate livelihood he left England to go to America, where there was growing resentment against a ‘mother country’ which taxed its colony in the New World without allowing it political representation.
Working as a printer’s apprentice, Paine published a slew of impassioned pamphlets urging freedom from the ‘crowned ruffians’ of the Old World of England and Europe.
He pieced his arguments together in his first major work, ‘Common Sense’, which was published in 1776 and became an overnight bestseller, outstripping even the ‘Bible’.
Typically, Paine gave away his royalties and made little or no money from the book, the central thesis of which was that there was no right, divinely ordained or otherwise, which entitled one man to enslave another.
Paine became a close friend of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but when America won its War of Independence against British monarchy, he returned to England and continued his crusade against all forms of social and political repression in ‘The Rights of Man’, in which he questioned the authority of both the Crown and the Church.
Accused of treason, he fled to post-Revolution France which having overthrown its own ‘ancien regime’ initially greeted him with open arms.
In France Paine wrote ‘The Age of Reason’, in which he clearly enunciated the connection he made between political and spiritual freedom, between democracy and the domain of consciousness untrammelled by the rules and rituals of any organised religion.
In cadences of thunderous prose, Paine proclaimed: “My own mind is my own church… who then art thou, vain dust and ashes! by whatever name thou art called, whether a king, a bishop, a church… or anything else that obtrudes thine insignificance between the soul of man and its maker.”
When he denounced the revolutionary Reign of Terror, he faced the guillotine but managed to escape to America where he died a pauper’s death.
But he left a legacy of freedom, of an independence of the spirit, by the spirit, and for the spirit which shall not perish from the earth.