The Function of “the Petty Tyrant”
One of the most interesting matters brought up in Castaneda’s writings is the role of “the petty tyrant”. Surviving Trump and Trumpism — or authoritarian populism and the politics of the hoarde more generally — may well be a matter of learning to see and use Trump as this same petty tyrant in one’s practice of self-overcoming. I can almost believe that Trump, among others today, was indeed fated to serve as this same “petty tyrant” for our metamorphosis. It’s a suspicion that has been lurking around the edges of my mind for a while.
The idea of finding and using a “petty tryant” for one’s spiritual practice isn’t unique to don Juan’s world. We also find it in Rumi. In one place, Rumi describes a Sufi sheikh he knew who deliberately married one — a really obnoxious woman — as a big part of his spiritual practice. To ordinary eyes, the sheikh looked like a poor, oppressed hen-pecked husband. Rumi, though, saw a Sufi warrior and master who had deliberately embraced the great hardship of living with an impossible wife as his practice of self-overcoming and self-mastery. And I sometimes suspect that Nietzsche’s expressed admiration for great big petty tyrants like Caesar or Napoleon, which some take as “great man theory”, may well have been in the same spirit — their usefulness as “petty tyrants” in one’s spiritual practice.
Using the petty tyrant in this way actually turns the tables on the tyrant. For the real warrior here, the petty tyrant becomes a springboard to self-transcendence and real mastery. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” is, in effect, Nietzsche’s homage to the petty tyrant or worthy enemy, a spiritual alchemy that turns all ordinary defeats into spiritual victories. And, in some respects, Castaneda’s don Juan held that finding and learning to use a petty tyrant in one’s spiritual practice of losing self-importance was the greatest of all spiritual practices. It may well be the hardest practice of all.
It brings to mind, again, something Rosenstock-Huessy once stated — that in matters of the spirit, what we call “natural processes” are reversed. In nature, birth precedes death. In the spirit, death precedes birth. Losing self-importance is this process of death — of “dying before you die” — and is quite the antithesis of today’s obsession with identity and identity politics. Self-importance and the self-interest, and “the culture of narcissism” are exactly the same thing.
The biggest screw-up of a lot of Hermetic thought and practice — like that of Julius Evola — is that the practitioner misses the whole point — losing self-importance. The practitioner in effect, joins the ranks of the petty tryants himself. It’s pretty much this that distinguishes the authentic Hermeticist from the “Puffer” — the charlatan, the fake, the poseur. It’s this sense of self-importance that is the perverting factor which corresponds to the Emissary’s “usurpation” of which Iain McGilchrist writes in his fine book The Master and His Emissary.
Musing on these matters this morning, and how Trump reminds of Castaneda’s “petty tyrant”, I tried to find something on the internet about don Juan’s views of the petty tyrant, and I found a very good one “What is a Petty Tyrant?”, which includes some quotes from Castaneda’s book The Fire From Within. (You may have to use the zoom function in your browser to read this comfortably. It is very small print!).
Every real and authentic enlightenment tradition I know of always begins with the practice of losing self-importance — becoming empty, becoming nothing and no one. “Die to oneself daily”, as the New Testament puts it, is also this practice of losing self-importance, and it’s one of the reasons self-righteousness is the greatest sin of all. It was especially so for William Blake. And it is this problem of self-importance that distinguishes individualism from real individuation, which is the issue of Henri Bortoft’s writings on counterfeit and authentic wholes. Individualism is counterfeit individuation.
But becoming whole begins by losing self-importance.