Category Archives: Essays

Organic in Plastic


When did petroleum-based plastic become organic??

Or is it just the food that counts? The Earth does not see it that way. And most “organic” is a throwaway expression, like “exciting” or “hot”

Living in the Phantasiacene

People use the term anthropocene to refer to the current age of manmade climate change. I wonder whether the better term might be “phantasiacene” as the primary problem is how humans have collapsed into unrelenting self deception. What do you think?


私の誕生日(55歳)十月十六日に沖縄県の玉城デニー知事がワシントンを訪問し、コスモスクラブでマイクモチヅキ教授とローレンス ウイルカーソン教授と一緒に食事をなさいました。私がその時たまたま飛行機にのって大阪行きでした。ぜひ玉城知事に会って私の本「武器よさらば」を差し上げたいと思いました。それはできなかったので、 ウイルカーソン教授 に伝達をお願いしました。玉城知事が私を本をもってこの写真を撮れました。関心があったと伺いました。


Walter Benjamin on Fascism

“Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, who Fascism, with its Fuhrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All effort to render politics aesthetic culimate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.”

Walter Benjamin
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”


The question here is what is meant by “render politics aesthetic” ? I would guess that “aesthetic” stands in contrast with a concrete, transactional and explicit form of politics in which it is clear what the political act is and what its intention is. An “aesthetic” approach means that the true nature of the political process is obscured by images, myths, mythology and spectacle. The population is swept up in a performance which allows them to feel they are taking an action, but which is choreagraphed by the hidden political players.

The feckless and pathetic progressives

I see this reporting and the docile manner in which it is received by the American public as indicative of the bankruptcy of the entire political culture.

The actions taken are not “alarming” they are unethical. They are not unethical, they are unconstitutional and a violation of the law. They are not just a violation of the law, they are “criminal.” That means we must demand that people go to jail. They they be forcibly removed from office, at whatever cost and punished. Similarly, the so-called “left” is so weak, so feckless, that it thinks that “regime change” is a bad word. It thinks that to do anything other than say nice things is taboo. But the Fascists burning down the Amazon are criminals and regime change demands, not protests in front of embassies, are the only response. Remember the fight against Franco in Spain? Thousands from around the world volunteered the go down and get themselves killed in that fight. But now? Forget it.

“The idea that [Palestinian student] Ajjawi should be prevented from taking his place at Harvard because of his own political speech would be alarming,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s senior director of Free Expression Programs. “That he should be denied this opportunity based on the speech of others is downright lawless. This despicable action also flies in the face of the purpose of international educational exchange, which is to open the mind and expand one’s understanding of the world. Instead, [the world] has been shown only the U.S.’s failure to uphold the very values it purports to stand for.”

Stephen Jenkinson on “The Meaning of Death”

Stephen Jenkinson

Says in “The Meaning of Death” something quite profound about our age, and how the fate of our civilization is tied to the personal experience of death.

I have watched the video maybe twenty times and have been both moved and confused by what he said. I transcribed the entire text, but I am still not sure exactly what he is saying. What I can say is that I would not have been drawn to it if it were not compelling.

Stephen Jenkinson

“The Meaning of Death”

You know I was asked, many, many times when I was in the front lines of the.. No! When the people in death’s shade thought I was a good idea–to come and talk about finding meaning at the end of life.

That was the standard request

So you can see the idea that meaning is somehow potentially elusive, or even fugitive. And has to be somehow be wrung from the circumstances is behind that question.

It is a particularly modernist dilemma

To find meaning.

But the real problem is in conceiving of it as something that you have to find. You can see the language implies that it is hidden, or that you are not looking in the right place, or that there is some nefarious architecture that keeps it from you, or that… You understand—or that

you have to claim so-and-so as your personal savior.

What but what if the meaning is not hidden? What if is not something to find.

What if the story is that meaning is not found at all, but it’s made. It is made by the willingness to proceed as if certain things must be.

Like, life has to continue, not you have to continue. That life is not your lifespan, or your children’s lifespan, or the lifespan of what you hold dear.

How about holding dear the fact that nothing you hold dear lasts? How about holding that close to your bosom? That’s making meaning of the end of life, the willingness to do that.

It is not hammered into the sky for all to see so that nobody can forget.

You see how precarious the whole proposition is. It actually has to be lived out and told in order to pertain.

It ha(s) no police, it ha(s) no enforcement branch.

You know.

If you’re not willing for it to be so, it probably won’t be. End. Well, what’s the consequence of that? Well, it is not a conjecture, look around you. Our way of life is the consequence.

Life does not feed life. Life is on the receiving side of life, always. No it is death that feeds life. It is the end of life that gives life a chance.    

It is a hurtful kind of comfort, maybe, that the dominant culture of North America is in some kind of beginning stage of a terminal swoon.  Because it’s the beginning, it is hard to tell the difference between that and dancing, or having a good time, you know.

But, it is terminal alright, meaning that there is no turning back from it, there is no undoing it.

Alas, it is worse than talking about it as a punishment.

It’s not a punishment, no more that dying is a punishment for being born.

Our particular dilemma, I think, is trying to live with the realization that what the world requires of us humans is not that they piss off already and why don’t you all die and then we’ll go back where we were.

No, I think that the world whispers, “All we need of you is that you be human—that’s it.

The dilemma is in the meaning of the word, “human.”

What has to die is your refusal to die; your refusal for things to end.

If that dies, life can be fed by (that) and so the plea is not for punishment, it’s for remembrance. You are not supposed to feel bad about having forgotten. You are supposed to feel more. See, that is the invitation.

“The Chinese concept of propriety (“li”) as the key to new ecological awareness”

Circles and Squares


“The Chinese concept of propriety (“li”)

as the key to new ecological awareness”

Emanuel Pastreich

January 13, 2019

The Chinese tradition of “li” 礼 has a broad significance as a set of rules that set standards in behavior that create harmony between individuals, and between the institutions of human society. Li, both in general sense of manners and propriety, and in the narrow sense of rituals of life (birth, marriage, funerals, ancestor worship and offerings to Heaven), was the foundation for society and defined family relationships and encouraged responsibility and accountability within the family, the community, the nation and the realm. Li was seen as foundations for governance, for international relations and for all family relations.

In the narrow sense, “li” refers to the offering up of food and other valued objects as sacrifices to the ancestors of a clan, the former emperor or king, or to heaven, or other deities. It served as periodic affirmation of the indebtedness of the individual, of the family and of humanity as a whole to the ecological cycles that produced the food that we consume and gave deeper significance to foodstuff, and the act of eating in a manner that encouraged an awareness of the centrality of agriculture and the importance of the ecosystem.   

“Li” in the sense of “propriety” defines a set of complex rules that governed conduct between people and created a healthy order in society through the reinforcement of moral imperatives in daily life. “Li” in the sense of greeting family member in accord with their position within the family (and thus making social relations explicit, and therefore acknowledged) had profound symbolic value and real ethical power as well. “Li” in the sense of propriety grew directly out of “li” as ritual in that periodic rituals defined relationships and assured that everyone, even the emperor, is neatly woven into a larger hierarchy of things human and natural so that no one can imagine himself or herself to be standing alone.

In this sense, “li” as propriety and ritual reinforced a sense of balance between humans that was intimately connected to the larger balance between the human realm and the natural realm. Chinese felt deeply liberated in the process of modernization in that they gained freedom from these ritual acts which seemed to restrict their actions so severely, but that meant that they no longer felt tied to each other or to the natural world. The result was the growing exploitation of fellow humans in an alienated society and the destruction of the natural environment. Although the socialist revolution in China tried to set right the radical exploitation of labor, it did so within a Marxist framework which did not affirm human relations with the natural environment. More recently, the gap between rich and poor in China, and the world, has gone far beyond what Confucians would have tolerated and the destruction of soil, water and mountains has become a tremendous tragedy precisely because the intimate connection constantly repeated in “li” has been destroyed.

Ritual is not limited to Confucianism. It has strong foundations in Buddhism, in Daoism and in shamanism in East Asia, and for that matter parallels in Christianity and Islam. Perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses in contemporary ideology is our loss of a language to describe ritual. That is to say that although we pretend that we have moved beyond the rituals of the past into a modern age of self-expression and directness, in fact ritual is deeply imbedded in human culture and cannot be overcome. Rather, modern society consists of many rituals that citizens are not aware of as rituals (like the rituals of shopping and of consuming). At the same time, citizens lack awareness of the power of ritual to connect citizens together and to increase their awareness of the environment and to create a political and spiritual commons.

The Confucian ritual tradition, especially after Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200) codification and standardization of ritual practice during the Southern Song Dynasty, and his linkage of ritual with a metaphysical totality, gave family, community and state rituals a new intellectual import. The importance of the relationship between the underlying metaphysical order of things, the ecosystem and the human realm the dates back to ancient times,[1] but it had never been put together in such a systematic manner. Suddenly man’s ties to nature in his every action were made explicit, and intellectually involved.

Zhu Xi unambiguously mapped out the significance of rituals and wedded them directly to an imbricated metaphysical order that lay behind every act in the family rituals.   

The tremendous potential of the Confucian rituals is the manner in which they affirm the relationship between the individual and nature, between the consumption of food and the awareness of its origins, between daily life for the citizen and the ecosystem as a whole. Those rituals, if they can be reinterpreted for our age, offer the potential of a solution to the most serious threat to our society, the growth of mindless consumption as the primary ritual of daily life.

Modernity, consumption and family rituals: The Korean case

When I married my Korean wife twenty two years ago, I discovered that her family practiced the most strict and carefully orchestrated Confucian rituals at the time of the Autumn Harvest and the traditional new year’s for the ancestors, and also on the days of the deaths of ancestors. The entire family would come from across Korea, or even from abroad to be at the parents’ house for the events without fail. They would cancel other engagements and sit through hours of heavy traffic to be present.  The elder boys spent considerable time laying out the meat, peeled chestnuts, persimmons, apples, wine and other foods in the appropriate places, and in the appropriate dish or bowl. All was done in accord with the careful diagrams in books the family treasured. Those diagrams were based directly on Zhu Xi’s instructions for the family rites (jiali 家礼) in Zhuzi Jiali (朱子家礼). At that time, I was attracted to the solidarity of the family and the commitment to tradition in her family, and I was honored to be included in the rituals as a new member of the family.

Over the years, however, the members of my wife’s family have taken far less interest in the rituals; often her brothers do not come at all, saying they are too busy with work. The children also go out to play with their friends, or show up just for a few minutes to show their respects and then rush out the door. So also the placement of the food and other objects on the table for the ceremonies has become far more sloppy since my wife’s father passed away. Often there are only a few people helping to set up the offerings—sometimes only me.

I fear that the Confucian rituals will not be carried out at all by the next generation, perhaps not after my wife’s mother’s generation passes away. It is hard to imagine my children, granted the seductive consumption culture that they have grown up in, carrying on such a tradition. The loss is considerable, but not much different from what we have seen in Vietnam, Japan and China.

Increasingly we hear tales of aged parents who are abandoned by their children, and also of children who are discarded, or neglected, by their parents. The decline of Confucian ritual is not the only cause of this transformation of Chinese and Korean society, nor are the changes entirely negative, but overall, the result has been the growth of a narcissistic culture focused on the immediate, on the self, on image (as opposed to values) and unconcerned with future consequences. Confucian rituals served as a constant affirmation of the common roots that tie people together, and a demonstration of our mutual ethical obligations. The rituals had significance far beyond any effect that pleasing the ancestors might have for the fortune of the family.

The greatest assault on ritual comes from commercial advertising. Rather than adversisements that encourage cooperation and concern for those who have had fewer advantages, current adversiings is vacuous and indulgent, the equivalent of pornography in terms of its ethical content. Selfishness is held up as an ideal and it makes a grotesque appeal to the appetite, to the unreasoning instincts of the brain stem. Such advertising is violation of the sacredness of food and of clothing, of everything in our daily lives. By contrast, Confucian rituals affirmed the relations between members of society and a spiritual aspect in daily life.

We should be encouraging people to value every grain of rice, every drop of water, and it is unethical to suggest to our citizens that they should treat binge eating as something to be emulated. Our climate has been turned into a desert, and our society has been turned into a desert by TV programs that deny what is the best in the Confucian tradition: the ethical imperative for personal frugality and a deep respect for agricultural production. 

The failure of citizens to wrap their minds around the threat of nuclear war, of climate change, of the rapid concentration of wealth and of other dangers is a direct result of a new anti-intellectual culture. We no longer employ rigorous scientific approaches to the analysis of contemporary society, or even to our private lives. But that anti-intellectual trend is a result of our failure to relate our actions to the larger society because we no longer have rituals that bind us together.

Training our citizens to control and moderate their desires was considered to be essential in traditional Korea and China. As I witness so many highly educated people lost in frivolous amusements today, I wonder whether we should see those past f rituals as representing not so much an oppressive ideology as an ethical imperative to affirm commitment to each other through practice.

Food, society and the environment

The affirmation of the value of food in a social and environmental sense was a critical part of ritual , from ancient times, and especially after Zhu Xi. Affirming the importance of food in our lives, and our ties to our ancestors and our ties to nature serves to increase our awareness of the importance of food, even adding a spiritual dimension to the daily eating and drinking of food and beverages. In the face of climate change, such a shift is absolutely necessary. We do not have to go the some advance Western country to find such awareness. We can find it in the Confucian past.

It is in this respect that ritual has so much potential power. Ritual in the Confucian tradition affirms a spiritual essence within the everyday objects, especially in food. In ancient times, this concept can be traced back to a belief that all objects, like food, have an essence which is spiritual (and which feeds the ancestors or nourishes heaven) and an essence with is material (and nourishes us in this material world). The implication for later generations of that view was that food offered up in ritual was a confirmation of the value of agriculture and the maintenance of the environment as a means of producing food, and an affirmation of a spiritual essence within food. The ritual act was also a sign of respect for the process, stretching over hundreds and thousands of years, by which humans and agriculture formed a whole.

In a traditional view of the world, man exists primarily as the farmer who tills the fields and then he consumes the food, and finally he lies, buried, beneath those fields. In the end, his body becoming part of that Earth again and contributed to the process. The food that nourishes us, and will nourish future generations, is literally the product of the ancestors.

Confucian ritual does not refer explicitly to such a process, but such an understanding of the link between the human and the natural realms is buried not far below the surface. After all, as the ancestors passed down to us the skills of farming, they also gave life to us and created our environment not only through their wisdom, but also by becoming a part of the soil.

In the last hundred years, the process by which our world is formed by the events of the past, and our actions impact future generations has been completely lost, leading to profoundly self-destructive acts such as the consumption of plastic products and the use of food as a source of pleasure and distraction, rather than a means of nourishment. The separation of the human realm from the natural one, through sealed buildings with air conditioning, has created an absolute break with the natural world, and a mistaken belief that humans are somehow separate from other animals. That process has been forgotten by the present generation, leading to a radical cultural discontinuity with the past, and also to a glaring ignorance about where food comes from, how it is produced and what impact that process has on our lives. The destruction of the ecosystem and its long-term impact on food is a taboo topic which is never mentioned.  

From early times, and especially since the Song Dynasty, ritual became a metaphysical experience for the individual, for the family, and especially for the intellectual that reaffirmed the organic connection of humans with food, with the environment and with a larger historical and ecological order of being. Of course there were narrower interpretations within the popular culture wherein ritual events served as opportunities to bring good fortune, or to solve immediate worries of women of the household. Such understanding was no in conflict with the metaphysical significance.

The consumption of food after the offering to the ancestors, or to heaven, especially grains and other agricultural produce made ritual a celebration of the process by which human experience is linked to the food that provides nourishment, and thus confirmed the intimate interplay of earth and food, water and food

That critical space of ritual in the lives of Chinese that made clear how one’s daily life was tied to others, and to the earth was subject to a powerful intellectual assault from the late 19th century as the new ideology of modernization and industrialization took root in China. Confucian rituals were dismissed as a backwards superstition that impeded the radical transformation of China into a modern nation[2]. Two generations of Chinese intellectuals made it a top priority to stamp out the lingering traces of an oppressive feudal society. Those events ceased to be a means of affirming man’s connection to nature and to each other, or to agriculture, for them. Ritual was perceived as a barrier to the development of factories, trains and automobiles, financial institutions and a modern global culture. Modernity was something that was required and it could only be achieved by severing attachments to others, and to the natural world.

I remember when I first studied Chinese history at Yale University in 1983. In the course I heard at length about the tragic story of how backwards-looking bureaucrats failed to modernize China because they adhered to rigid Confucian concepts of government, and of technology, which hobbled them and rendered them incapable of embracing the obvious step forward into modernity of mass production, coal-fired trains and factories and the growth of massive cities. I was taught the tragic story of how China fell pathetically behind the West because of such backwards thinking. The implication was that was something essentially flawed about the Chinese cultural tradition, for all its glory, which demanded that essential principles from the West be imported in order to move on to the next, inevitable step of cultural evolution.

But now that we are witnessing  the catastrophe of climate change and see directly the horrible distortions in our economy and in our society that have resulted from the use of coal and petroleum to drive factories, trains and automobiles—not the mention a lethal new generation of weapons—can we continue to cling to that narrative?  It is a hard myth to abandon as it is linked to every aspect of our modern ideology, both ideologies of the right and the left. Yet we must ask whether or not a system in which the engagement with the environment, the focus on agriculture (and specifically food) and the demand for a human-centered economic system in which ethics outweighed profits or scale of production was not superior to the modern system we have imported in which the natural world, and humans as well, are subjects for constant exploitation.

The She and Ji rituals (社稷) performed by the Chinese emperor in Beijing (and the Korean kings of the Joseon Dynasty) served as a unique combination of the assertion of political authority at the highest level in the promotion of the well-being of ordinary citizens with the recognition of the critical importance of the ecosystem for human society. These rituals paralleled the rituals of the family at the highest level. The “She” ritual was intended for the god of the Earth, a spiritual presence who guards the soil so critical to nourishing the crops which nourish the people and undergirds the entire political economy. The “Ji” ritual was intended for the god of the crops, the spiritual presence who protects plants and assures that they mature so as to provide food without suffering from pestilences, insects or droughts.  

The emperor’s offerings were not mere superstition, but rather an explicitly political and spiritual representation of the essential ties between the earth, and the plants that grow in it, and the political and economic activities of humans. Such awareness in the political realm of ecology created a balance between human settlements and the natural world. But that balance has vanished from modern society. There are numerous rituals carried out in party meetings in China today, and the hosting of foreign dignitaries, but none of them affirm the importance of the biosphere or the centrality of agriculture.

The loss of an awareness of the importance of nature for human society in the modernization project has had extremely serious consequences for modern Chinese society. We no longer have any symbolic representations to remind the people of the importance of nature and domestic agriculture to their physical and spiritual wellbeing. We have no symbolic representations, or ritual expressions, of the ties between the earth, water plants and our civilization. People are concerned about the environment in an abstract sense, but give no thought to how every plastic object they throw away impacts the environment. We are bombarded by images of modernity defined in terms of highways, high-rise buildings, automobiles, computers and landscapes completely devoid of plants of any type. It is assumed in the commercial imagination that plants, and specifically crops, are interchangeable and that they can be bought and sold from around the world without any impact on our civilization. Farming is considered a backwards industry of the past.

But a civilization cut free from all awareness of the production of food from the soil, all understanding of the effort required to feed people, is a civilization that is in danger of falling head first into a dangerous cult of consumption and complete disregard for our ecological future. It is a dangerous and destructive civilization indeed.

Song Confucianism, especially as embodied by the teachings of Zhu Xi, provided the basis for the She and Ji rituals and other affirmations of the importance of agriculture and the environment in the lives of all people. The focus of Zhu Xi on the metaphysical significance of man’s position in the natural world set the groundwork for an embrace of ecology in an intellectual and spiritual sense within the Confucian tradition, going further than Buddhism in the criticality assigned.[3]

Zhu Xi described a complex moral psychology, limned through ritual practice, wherein the relationship of the individual, and society, to the natural environment was identified as central to the search for enlightenment. The process of becoming aware of one’s environment was established as a significant goal in self-cultivation and in active practice.

Song Confucianism argued that if we connect to our inborn nature we will see no separation between ourselves and nature and therefore we must treat nature with appropriate reverence. Zhu Xi refers to a mental state of “maintaining reverence” (chi jing持敬) that was the central condition for self-cultivation. This mental state grew from the adherence to rules of propriety and a care for the human and natural world that was taught to young people, but also was meant to be developed to a higher degree in adulthood. Reverence required discipline, focused thinking and mindfulness that opened the mind to the way. The final stage of humaneness, or the final sagehood, required a full embrace of one’s inborn connection to nature and to the entire natural world.

Zhu Xi’s essay “A treatise on Humaneness” (Renshuo 仁说) assumed that there was no separation between the human and the animal world. He saw a commonality not only of experience, but of existence itself between the two realms.[4] Zhu Xi explained “the person of humaneness regards Heaven and Earth and all things as one body. To that person there is nothing that is not oneself.” The enlightened one feels a deep affinity for plants, grasses and trees as living things. For Zhu Xi it was human selfishness and hubris that blocks the awareness of this deep connection and therefore endless effort is required. Reverence was not only reverence for ancestors and Heaven, but also for nature itself and a deep awareness of one’s impact on the environment.


A landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convened by the United Nations entitled “Global Warming of 1.5 C” [5]was released recently that presents a far more shocking vision for the immediate future than the corporate media was willing to acknowledge before. The report suggests that humanity faces catastrophic consequences of its carbon-centered economy and makes a clear break with the previous assumption that carbon trading schemes are sufficient to address the problem.

The report avoids much of the far more pessimistic predictions of many experts, but goes further than any mainstream report so far. And yet the ultimate implications of the report have been swept under the rug by a modern society still in deep denial. The problem is not carbon emissions from factories and automobiles, nor it the problem the use of technologies. It is rather the full embrace of an ideology, a mentality, which holds that the consumption of goods defines the significance of one’s human experience.

That destructive ideology underlies most of the assumptions of our modern society and determines the priorities of our citizens to a remarkable degree. Yet the traditions of the past, and especially the close connection between humans and the environment represented by food as described in the rituals of the Confucian tradition, offer an alternative to us. We do not know yet how that Confucian tradition can be reinterpreted for the modern age, and for the entire world, but the potential is most certainly there. After all, Zhu Xi’s writings on ritual were successful in Korea precisely because they emphasized universality, not specificity. They made the ritual part of the process of enlightenment, something that anyone could participate in.

Or we could say that Zhu Xi brought the individual act together with universal principles in a powerful manner. Such a skill is most precisely what we need most desperately today. Every action by the individual, every choice by the individual, is critical to protecting our environment. We can find the inspiration for a new practice in our daily life to address the climate change crisis, and the food crisis, in the Confucian tradition.

[1] The critical terms are “tian” (heaven 天), “di” (earth 地), “ren” (man 人), better known as “sancai” (三才). But “tian” refers not simply to the heaven above, but to the underlying principles of the universe. “Di” is not simply the ground, but the entire ecosystem that humanity must live in harmony with. “Ren” refers to humans and the totality of human civilization.

[2] This intellectual revolution brought on by the work of various Westerners in China is detailed in Jonathan Spence’s study To Change China: Western Advisors in China (Penguin Books, 2002).   

[3] B.C. Keenan. “Reverence and Cheng-Zhu Ecology.” Dao, 2018, pp. 187-201.

[4] IBID, p. 199.

[5] The full report is available at

Why AI does not have to be that advanced to destroy humanity

“Long, long before any robot or computer becomes smarter than a human, the interaction of humans with increasingly invasive technologies that stimulate the lowest functions of the human brain in the ruthless search for profit will reduce us to hopeless zombies who march willingly, even excitedly, towards the apocalypse. We can already see it now as governments collapse and our neighbors suffer terribly, but few, if any, can understand how others feel. The result of this influx of technology will be that the human mind will run like a poor imitation of a video and will lose control of its own fate.”

Steve Cutts’ video
“The system is failing” explains this failure the best.

Emanuel Pastreich

January 4, 2019

Tears well up in my eyes

Over the last two weeks I have noticed that my eyes are filled with tears on occasion as I walk around the city. I do not know the cause. I honestly cannot tell whether my eyes fill up with tears because of increasing air pollution, or rather because I am deeply saddened by the tragedy that awaits humanity, but I cannot formulate, or express, that sadness. 

John Brown and the Provisional Constitution

“The Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United States”

“The Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United States,” in that it is even mentioned in historical texts, is dismissed as a document made up on the spot by John Brown’s lawyer Samuel Chilton when he defended Brown during the trial for insurrection for Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry in 1858.

But the more one thinks about John Brown’s actions, the clearer it becomes that this document was at the core of Brown’s actions, and the actions of his supporters, and that they saw their efforts, including the provisional constitution, as being entirely legal and entirely moral in nature.

From Brown’s perspective, he did not engage in insurrection at all, but rather the entire government of the South, and to a large extent, that of the entire United States was so corrupt and so far from the word and the spirit of its own constitution that it lacked any legitimacy. He presented a blue print for the rule by law and his actions were entirely legal and just from that point of view. “The Provisional Constitution” states that everyone, native, African American, immigrant, or otherwise is a citizen of the nation. It is radical statement only in comparison with accepted thinking of elites at the time. The provisional constitution represents a most obvious conclusion coming from the careful reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

I am astonished at the degree to which his narrative has been distorted and ignored so as to make it almost impossible to see him as anything but a radical. In fact, it was Robert E Lee who attacked John Brown for standing up for the spirit of the constitution. Lee, not Brown, was the radical, the extremist.

As we wrestle with the complete decay of the rule of law today, it is critical that we read again what John Brown wrote back then. It is also critical that we understand that the tradition of constitutional law that we see in the United States Constitution of 1787 did not grow merely out of enlightenment thinking and the Magna Carta, but that it also has deep roots in the “Great Law of Peace” of the Iroquois Confederacy and other native constitutions. Written down in 1722, the “Great Law of Peace” dated back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and offered a powerful alternative to the exploitative tradition of the English colonies.

The Provisional Constitution was an attempt to fully embody the words of the constitution and perhaps its origins in the “Great Law of Peace” and as such was perhaps not anywhere as radical as its critics later claimed.

Here is the full text of the “Provisional Constitution”

Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United States.


Whereas slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion-the only conditions ‘of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination-in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence:

Therefore, we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme’ Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitu­tion and Ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions


Qualifications for membership

All persons of mature age, whether proscribed, oppressed, and enslaved citizens, or of the proscribed and oppressed races of the United States, who shall agree to sustain and enforce the Provisional Constitution and Ordinances of this organization, together with all minor children of such persons, shall be held to be fully entitled to protection under the same.


Branches of government.

The provisional government of this organization shall consist of three branches, viz: legislative, executive, and judicial.



The legislative branch shall be a Congress or House of Representative, composed of not less than five nor more than ten members, who shall be elected by all citizens of mature age and of sound mind con­nected with this organization, and who shall remain in office for three years, unless sooner removed for misconduct, inability, or by death. A majority of such members shall constitute a quorum.



The executive branch of this organization shall consist of a President and Vice-President, who shall be chosen by the citizens or members of this organization, and each of whom shall hold his office for three years” unless sooner removed by death or for inability or misconduct.



The judicial branch of this organization shall consist of one Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and of four associate judges of said court, each constituting a circuit court. They shall each be chosen in the same manner as the President, and shall continue in office until their places have been filled in the same manner by election of the citizens. Said court shall have jurisdiction in all civil or criminal causes arising under this constitution, except breaches of the rules of war.


Validity of enactments.

All enactments of the legislative branch shall, to become valid during the first three years, have the approbation of the President and of the Commander-in-chief of the army.



A Commander-in-chief of the army shall be chosen by the President, Vice-President, a majority of the Provisional Congress, and of the Supreme Court, and he shall receive his commission from the President, signed by the Vice-President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the Secretary of War, and he shall hold his office for three years, unless removed by death or on proof of incapacity or misbehavior. He shall, unless under arrest, (and until his place is actually filled as pro­vided for by this constitution,) direct all movements of the army and advise with any allies. He shall, however, be tried, removed, or pun­ished, on complaint of the President, by at least three general officers, or a majority of the House of Representatives, or of the Supreme Court; which House of Representatives, (the President presiding,) the Vice-President, and the members of the Supreme Court, shall consti­tute a court-martial for his trial; with power to remove or punish, as the case may require, and to fill his place, as above provided.



A Treasurer, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Secretary of the Treasury, shall each be chosen, for the first three years, in the same way and manner as the Commander-in-chief, subject to trial or removal on complaint of the President, Vice-President, or Commander in-chief, to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or on complaint of the majority of the members of said court or the Provisional Congress. The Supreme Court shall have power to try or punish either of those officers, and their places shall be filled as before.


Secretary of War.

The Secretary of War shall be under the immediate direction of the Commander-in-chief, who may temporarily fill his place in case of arrest or of any inability to serve.


Congress or House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives shall make ordinances providing for the appointment (by the President or otherwise) of all civil officers, excepting those already named; and shall have power to. make all laws and ordinances for the general good, not inconsistent with this Constitution and these ordinances.


Appropriation of money

The Provisional Congress shall have power to appropriate money or other property actually in the hands of the treasurer, to any object calculated to promote the general good, so far as may be consistent with the provisions of this constitution; and may, in certain cases, appropriate for a moderate compensation of agents, or persons not members of this organization, for any important service they are known to have rendered.


Special duties.

It shall be the duty of Congress to provide for the instant removal of any civil officer or policeman, who becomes habitually intoxicated, or who is addicted to other immoral conduct, or to any neglect or unfaithfulness in the discharge of his official duties. Congress shall also be a Standing Committee of Safety, for the purpose of obtaining important information; and shall be in constant communication with the Commander-in-chief; the members of which shall each, as also the President, Vice-President, members of the Supreme Court, and Secretary of State, have full power to issue warrants, returnable as Congress shall ordain (naming witnesses, &c.,) upon their own information, without the formality of a complaint. Complaint shall be immediately made after arrest, and before trial; the party arrested to be served with a copy at once.


Trial of President and other Officers

The President and Vice-President may either of them be tried, removed, or punished, on complaint made to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, by a majority of the House of Representatives; which house together with the Associate Judges of the Supreme Court, the whole to be presided over by the Chief Justice in case of the trial of the Vice-President, shall have full power to try such officers, to remove or punish as the case may require, and to fill any vacancy so occurring, the same as in the case of the Commander-in-chief.


Trial of members of Congress.

The members of the House of Representatives may, any and all of them, be tried, and, on conviction, removed or punished, on complaint before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, made by any number of the members of said house exceeding one-third; which house, with the Vice-President and Associate Judges of the Supreme Court, shall constitute the proper tribunal with power to fill such vacancies.


Impeachment of Judges.

Any member of the Supreme Court may also be impeached, tried, convicted, or punished by removal or otherwise, Oil complaint to the President, who shall in such case, preside; the Vice-President, House of Representatives, and other members of the Supreme Court, consti­tuting the proper tribunal, (with power to fill vacancies,) on complaint of a majority of said House of Representatives, or of the Supreme Court; a majority of the whole having power to decide.


Duties of President and Secretary of State.

The President, with the Secretary of State; shall, immediately upon entering on the duties of their office, give special attention to secure from amongst their own people, men of integrity, intelligence, and good business habits and capacity, and, above an, of first-rate moral and religious character and influence, to act as civil officers of every description and grade, as well as teachers, chaplains, physicians, sur­geons, mechanics, agents of every description, clerks, and messengers. They shall make special efforts to induce, at the earliest possible period, persons and families of that description to locate themselves within the limits secured by this organization; and shall, moreover, from time to time, supply the names and residence of such persons to the Congress, for their special notice and information, as among the most important of their duties; and the President is herebyauth9rized and empowered to afford special aid to such individuals, from such moderate appropriations as the Congress shall be able and may deem advisable to make for that object. The President and Secretary of State, and in all cases of disagreement the Vice-President, shall appoint all civil officers, but shall not have power to remove any officer. All removals shall be the result of a fair trial, whether civil or military.


Further duties.

It shall be the duty of the President and Secretary of State to find out (as soon as possible) the real friends as well as enemies of this organization in every part of the country; to secure among them inn­keepers, private postmasters, private mail contractors, messengers, and agents, through whom may be obtained correct and regular in­formation constantly; recruits for the service, places of deposit and sale, together with all needed supplies; and it shall be matter of special regard to secure such facilities through the northern States.


Duty of the President.

It shall be the duty of the President, as well as the House of Rep­resentatives, at all times, to inform the Commander-in-chief of any matter that may require his attention, or that may affect the public safety.


Duty of President, continued.

It shall be the duty of the President to see that the provisional ordinances of this organization, and those made by the Congress, are promptly and faithfully executed; and he may, in cases of great urgency, call on the Commander-in-chief of the army or other officers for aid; it being, however, intended that a sufficient civil police shall always be in readiness to secure implicit obedience to law.


The Vice-President.

The Vice-President shall be the presiding officer of the Provisional Congress, and in cases of tie shall give the casting vote.



In case of the death, removal, or inability of the President, the Vice President, and, next to him, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall be the President during the remainder of the term; and the place of the Chief Justice, thus made vacant, shall be filled by Con­gress from’ some of the members of said court; and the places of the Vice-President and Associate Justice, thus made vacant, filled by an election by the united action of the Provisional Congress and members of the Supreme Court. All other vacancies, not heretofore specially provided for, shall, during the first three years, be filled by the united action of the President, Vice-President, Supreme Court, and Commander-in-chief of the army.


Punishment of crimes.

The punishment of crimes not capital, except in case of insubordinate convicts or other prisoners, shall be (so far as may be) by hard labor on the public works, roads, &c.


Army appointments.

It shall be the duty of all commissioned officers of the army to name candidates of merit, for office or elevation, to the Commander-in-chief, who, with the Secretary of War, and, in. cases of disagreement, the President, shall be the appointing power of the army; and all commissions of military officers shall bear the signatures of the Commander in-chief and the Secretary of War. And it shall be the special duty of the Secretary of War to keep for constant reference of the Commander-in-chief a full list of names of persons nominated for office or elevation by the officers of the army, with the name and rank of the officer nominating, stating distinctly, but briefly, the grounds for such notice or nomination. The Commander-in-chief shall not have power to remove or punish any officer or soldier, but he may order their arrest and trial at any time by court-martial.



Courts-martial for companies, regiments, brigades, &c., shall be called by the chief officer of each command, on complaint to him by any officer, or any five privates in such command, and shall consist of not less than five nor more than nine officers, non-commissioned offi­cers and privates, one half of whom shall not be lower in rank than the person on trial, to be chosen by the three highest officers in the command, which officers shall not be a part of such court. The chief officer of any command shall, of course, be tried by a court-martial of the command above his own. All decisions affecting the lives of per­sons, or office of persons holding commission, must, before taking full effect, have the signature of the Commander-in-chief, who may also, on the recommendation of at least one third of the members of the court-martial finding any sentence, grant a reprieve or commutation of the same.



No person connected with this organization shall be entitled to any salary, pay, or emolument, other than a competent support of himself and family, unless it be from an equal dividend made of public prop­erty, on the establishment of peace, or of special provision by treaty; which provision shall be made for all persons who may have been in any active civil or military service at any time previous to any hostile action for liberty and equality.


Treaties of peace.

Before any treaty of peace shall take full effect it shall be signed by the President and Vice-President, the Commander-in-chief, a majority of the House of Representatives, a majority of the Supreme Court, and a majority of all the general officers of the army.


Duty of the military.

It shall be the duty of the Commander-in-chief and all officers and soldiers of the army to afford special protection, when needed, to Con­gress or any member thereof, to the Supreme Court or any member thereof, to the President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of War; and to afford gen­eral protection to all civil officers or other persons having right to the same.



All captured or confiscated property and all property the product of the labor of those belonging to this organization and of their fami­lies, shall. be held as the property of the whole, equally, without distinction, and may be used for the common benefit, or disposed of for the same object; and any person, officer, or otherwise, who shall improperly retain, secrete, use, or needlessly destroy such property, or property found, captured, or confiscated, belonging to the enemy, or shall willfully neglect to render a full and fair statement of such property by him so taken or held, shall be deemed guilty of a misde­meanor, and, on conviction, shall be punished accordingly.


Safety or intelligence fund.

All money, plate, watches, or jewelry captured by honorable war­fare, found, taken, or confiscated, belonging to the enemy, shall be held sacred to constitute a liberal safety or intelligence fund; and any person who shall improperly retain, dispose of, hide, use, or destroy such money or other article above named, contrary to the provisions and spirit of this article, shall be deemed guilty of theft, and, on con­viction thereof, shall be punished accordingly. The treasurer shall furnish the Commander-in-chief at all times with a full statement of the condition of such fund, and its nature.


The Commander-in-chief and the treasury.

The Commander-in-chief shall have power to draw from the treasury the money and other property of the fund provided for in article twenty-ninth; but his orders shall be signed also by the Secretary of War, who shall keep strict account of the same subject to examination by any member of Congress or general officer.


Surplus of the safety or intelligence fund.

It shall be the duty of the Commander-in-chief to advice the President of any surplus of the safety and intelligence fund, who shall have power to draw such surplus (his order being also signed by the Secretary of State) to enable him to carry out the provisions of article seventeenth.



No person, after having surrendered himself or herself a prisoner, and who shall properly demean himself or herself as such, to any officer or private connected with this organization, shall afterward be put to death, or be subject to any corporeal punishment, without first having had the benefit of a fair and impartial trial; nor shall any prisoner be treated with any kind of cruelty, disrespect, insult, or needless severity; but it shall be the duty of all persons, male and female, connected herewith, at all times and under all circumstances, to treat all such prisoners with every degree of respect and kindness that the nature of the circumstances will admit of, and to insist on a like course of conduct from all others, as in the fear of Almighty God, to whose care and keeping we commit our cause.



All persons who may come forward, and shall voluntarily deliver up their slaves, and have their names registered on the books of the organization, shall, so long as they continue at peace, be entitled to the fullest protection of person and property, though not connected with this organization, and shall be treated as friends and not merely as persons neutral.



The persons and property of all non-slaveholders, who shall remain absolutely neutral, shall be respected so far as the circumstances can allow of it, but they shall not be entitled to any active protection.


No needless waste.

The needless waste or destruction of any useful property or article by fire, throwing open of fences, fields, buildings, or needless killing of animals, or injury of either, shall not be tolerated at any time or place, but shall be promptly and properly punished.


Property confiscated.

The entire personal and real property of all persons known to be acting either directly or indirectly with or for the enemy, or Found in arms with them, or found willfully holding slaves, shall be confis­cated and taken whenever and wherever it may be found in either free or slave States.



Persons convicted on impartial trial of desertion to the enemy, after becoming members, acting as spies, or of treacherous surrender of property, ammunition, provisions, or supplies of any kind, roads, bridges, persons, or fortifications shall be put to death, and their entire property confiscated.


Violation of parole of honor.

Persons proven to be guilty of taking up arms after having been set at liberty on parole of honor, or, after the same, to have taken any active part with or for the enemy, direct or indirect, shall be put to death, and their entire property confiscated.


All must labor.

All persons connected in any way with this organization, and who may be entitled to full protection under it, shall be held as under obligation to labor in some way for the general good; and persons refusing or neglecting so to do, shall, on conviction, receive a suitable and appropriate punishment.



Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication or quarreling, shall not be allowed or tolerated, neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes.



Persons convicted of the forcible violation of any female prisoner shall be put to death.


The marriage relation, schools, the Sabbath.

The marriage relation shall be at all times respected, and families kept together, as far as possible; and broken families encouraged to reunite, and intelligence offices established for that purpose. Schools and churches established, as soon as may be, for the purpose of reli­gious and other instructions; for the first day of the week, regarded as a day of rest, and appropriated to moral and religious instruction and improvement, relief of the suffering, instruction of the young and ignorant, and the encouragement of personal cleanliness; nor shall any persons be required on that day to perform ordinary manual labor, unless in extremely urgent cases.


Carry arms openly.

All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly.


No person to carry concealed weapons.

No person within the limits of the conquered territory, except regularly appointed policemen, express officers of the army, mail carriers, or other fully accredited messengers of the Congress, President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, or commissioned officers of the army-and those only under peculiar circumstances-shall be allowed at any time to carry concealed weapons; and any person not specially authorized so to do, who shall be found so doing, shall be deemed a suspicious person, and may at once be arrested by any officer, soldier, or citizen, without the formality of a complaint or warrant, and may at once be subjected to thorough search, and shall have his or her case thoroughly investigated, and be dealt with as circumstances on proof shall require.


Persons to be seized.

Persons within the limits of the territory holden by this organiza­tion, not connected with this organization, having arms at all, concealed or otherwise, shall be seized at once, or, be taken in charge of some vigilant officer, and their case thoroughly investigated; and it shall be the duty of all citizens and soldiers, as well as officers, to arrest such parties as are named in this and the preceding section or article, without the formality of complaint or warrant; and they shall be placed in charge of some proper officer for examination or for safe­keeping.


These articles not for the overthrow of government.

The foregoing articles shall not be construed so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of any State government, or of the general government of the United States, and look to no dissolution of the Union, but simply to amendment and repeal. And our flag shall be the same that our fathers fought under in the Revolution.


No plurality of offices.

No two of the offices specially provided for by this instrument shall be filled by the same person at the same time.



Every officer, civil or military, connected with this organization shall, before entering upon the duties of his office, make solemn oath or affirmation to abide by and support this provisional constitution and these ordinances; also every citizen and soldier, before being fully recognized as such, shall do the same.


The president of this convention shall convene, immediately on the adoption of this instrument, a convention of all such persons as shall have given their adherence by signature to the constitution, who shall proceed to fill, by election, all offices specially named in said constitution, the president of this convention presiding, and issuing commissions to such officers elect; all such officers being thereafter elected in the manner provided in the body of this instrument.

Source: Provisional Constitution