By Jim Garrison
For me, there are many memorable moments in my dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda and Larry Hickman.* One of the most memorable was when Ikeda and I shared our fondness for the poetry of Walt Whitman whom John Dewey called the “seer” of democracy. Ikeda called attention to the way that Whitman praised the wonder of the interconnectedness of all things referring to these lines from Leaves of Grass: “The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.” Lines like this might well have inspired Dewey’s notion that every individual has unique potential that we must educate that they may make their unique contribution to the democratic community.
Whitman and Dewey understood that reality is comprised of the actual and the possible and that the arts and imagination released ideal possibilities hidden in the actual in the sense of poiesis; that is, making creating, or calling into existence. The individual that awakens to their greater self by grasping their interconnectedness to the larger whole may actualizes their best possibilities, finds their correct place, and makes their distinctive combination.
For Whitman, life itself is the greatest poem and we each have important lines that only we can contribute. It is a profoundly democratic idea, although one perhaps more compatible with Asian than Western thought. Dewey declares: “Democracy in this sense denotes, one may say, aristocracy carried to its limit. It is a claim that every human being as an individual may be the best for some particular purpose and hence be the most fitted to rule, to lead, in that specific respect.” This is why Ikeda is so right to say, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation, and further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”
The poetic power of imagination to call forth our highest potential is of immense importance in many ways, not the least of which is that it allows us to conceive of democracy as internalized, social, organic, concrete, moral, aesthetic, and cultural in ways that emphasize social responsibility. This stands in contrast to the dominant Western paradigm that emphasizes externalized, atomistically individual, mechanical, formal, legalistic, and political ideals of democracy that mostly manifest as rights without responsibilities.
Our goal is creative democracy, the poetry of the people.
* The English-language version of the Garrison-Hickman-Ikeda dialogue will be published by our Dialogue Path Press in 2014.
Jim Garrison is a professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he also holds appointments in the department of philosophy, the science, technology, and society program, and the alliance for social, political, ethical, and cultural thought. His books include Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and Desire in the Art of Teaching.