Archive for category Wisdom
Some ancient wisdom for today…
THE CONFUCIAN LITERATI SAY: “Heaven gave birth to the people and then set rulers over them.” But how can High Heaven have said this in so many words? Is it not rather that interested parties make this their pretext? The fact is that the strong op pressed the weak and the weak submitted to them; the cunning tricked the innocent and the innocent served them. It was because there was submission that the relation of lord and subject arose, and because there was servitude that the people, being powerless, could be kept under control. Thus servitude and mastery result from the struggle between the strong and the weak and the contrast between the cunning and the innocent, and Blue Heaven has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
When the world was in its original undifferentiated state, the Nameless (wu-ming, i.e., the Tao) was what was valued, and all creatures found happiness in self-fulfillment. Now when the cinnamon-tree has its bark stripped or the var nish-tree is cut, it is not done at the wish of the tree; when the pheasant’s feathers are plucked or the kingfisher’s torn out, it is not done by desire of the bird. To be bitted and bridled is not in accordance with the nature of the horse; to be put under the yoke and bear burdens does not give pleasure to the ox. Cunning has its origin in the use of force that goes against the true nature ofthings, and the real reason for harming creatures is to provide useless adornments. Thus catching the birds of the air in order to supply frivolous adornments, making holes in noses where no holes should be, tying beasts by the leg when nature meant them to be free, is not in accord with the destiny of the myriad creatures, all born to live out their lives unharmed. And so the people are compelled to labour so that those in office may be nourished; and while their superiors enjoy fat salaries, they are reduced to the direst poverty.
It is all very well to enjoy the infinite bliss of life after death, but it is preferable not to have died in the first place; and rather than acquire an empty reputation for integrity by resigning office and foregoing one’s salary, it is better that there should be no office to resign. Loyalty and righteousness only appear when rebellion breaks out in the empire, filial obedience and parental love are only displayed when there is discord among kindred.
In the earliest times, there was neither lord nor subjects. Wells were dug for drinking-water, the fields were plowed for food, work began at sunrise and ceased at sunset; everyone was free and at ease; neither competing with each other nor scheming against each other, and no one was either glorified or humiliated. The wastelands had no paths or roads and the waterways no boats or bridges, and because there were no means of communication by land or water, people did not appropriate each other’s property; no armies could be formed, and so people did not attack one another. Indeed since no one climbed up to seek out nests nor dived down to sift the waters ofthe deep, the phoenix nested under the eaves of the house and dragons disported in the garden pool. The ravening tiger could be trodden on, the poisonous snake handled. Men could wade through swamps without raising the waterfowl, and enter the woodlands without startling the fox or the hare. Since no one even began to think of gaining power or seeking profit, no dire events or rebellions occurred; and as spears and shields were not in use, moats and ramparts did not have to be built. All creatures lived together in mystic unity, all of them merged in the Way (Tao). Since they were not visited by plague or pestilence, they could live out their lives and die a natural death. Their hearts being pure, they were devoid of cunning. Enjoying plentiful supplies of food, they strolled about with full bellies. Their speech was not flowery, their behavior not ostentatious. How, then, could there have been accumulation of property such as to rob the people of their wealth, or severe punishments to trap and ensnare them? When this age entered on decadence, knowledge and cunning came into use. The Way and its Virtue (Tao te) having fallen into decay, a hierarchy was established. Customary regulations for promotion and degradation and for profit and loss proliferated, ceremonial garments such as the [gentry’s] sash and sacrificial cap and the imperial blue and yellow [robes for worshiping Heaven and Earth] were elaborated. Buildings of earth and wood were raised high into the sky, with the beams and rafters painted red and green. The heights were overturned in quest of gems, the depths dived into in search of pearls; but however vast a collection of precious stones people might have assembled, it still would not have sufficed to satisfy their whims, and a whole mountain of gold would not have been enough to meet their expenditure, so sunk were they in depravity and vice, having transgressed against the fundamental principles of the Great Beginning. Daily they became further removed from the ways of their ancestors, and turned their back more and more upon man’s original simplicity. Because they promoted the “worthy” to office, ordinary people strove for reputation, and because they prized material wealth, thieves and robbers appeared. The sight of desirable objects tempted true and honest hearts, and the display of arbitrary power and love of gain opened the road to robbery. So they made weapons with points and with sharp edges, and after that there was no end to usurpations and acts of aggression, and they were only afraid lest crossbows should not be strong enough, shields stout enough, lances sharp enough, and defences solid enough. Yet all this could have been dispensed with if there had been no oppression and violence from the start.
Therefore it has been said: “Who could make scepters without spoiling the unblemished jade? And how could altruism and righteousness (jen and i) be extolled unless the Way and its Virtue had perished?” Although tyrants such as Chieh and Chou were able to burn men to death, massacre their advisers, make mince-meat of the feudal lords, cut the barons into strips, tear out men’s hearts and break their bones, and go to the furthest extremes of tyrannical crime down to the use of torture by roasting and grilling, however cruel they may by nature have been, how could they have done such things if they had had to remain among the ranks of the common people? If they gave way to their cruelty and lust and butchered the whole empire, it was because, as rulers, they could do as they pleased. As soon as the relationship between lord and subject is established, hearts become daily more filled with evil designs, until the manacled criminals sullenly doing forced labour in the mud and the dust are full of mutinous thoughts, the Sovereign trembles with anxious fear in his ancestral temple, and the people simmer with revolt in the midst of their poverty and distress; and to try to stop them revolting by means of rules and regulations, or control them by means of penalties and punishments, is like trying to dam a river in full flood with a handful of earth, or keeping the torrents of water back with one finger.
BaoJingyan: “Neither Lord Nor Subject” (300 CE)
[From Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume 1.]
In an interview with John R. Searle, there was this exchange (edited):
Searle: That’s my main objection to contemporary philosophy: they’ve lost sight of the questions. …
Interviewer: … But what advice would you give to a young philosopher starting out to not lose sight of the questions?
Searle: Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.
Indeed! The idea is to find the questions that matter, at least to you and pursue them doggedly.
I wrote an essay every week, which he [Dagfinn Føllesdal] spent an hour talking to me about. During one session, he gave me one of the two best pieces of advice about writing philosophy I ever received. He said “Mr. Soames, you should write so that if you make a mistake, anyone who knows the subject will immediately be able to identify it.” The other piece of good advice, later given by Judy Thomson, was “Don’t be afraid of mistakes; if you never make mistakes, you’ll never be a success.” Not to worry.
What these authors seem to be saying is that philosophy does not have to be aloof and pretentious. It’s as simple and natural as asking questions about ourselves and the world around us, using logic and skepticism as tools. It’s the process of looking for meaning and guidance in how to act. It’s curiosity and common sense, passed down over hundreds of years of human experience. It’s living your life in an engaged, intentional, contented way—or, more fancifully, in the pursuit of wisdom. It can, and should, be utterly practical.
When I think about the “Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic, I am first of all struck by what it must mean for the prisoner to get up. Why does the prisoner get up? At what urging? What could be the impetus for such getting up when one’s whole life there was never the slightest notion of ”getting up"?.
Socrates does not say, leaving us to ponder what could lead to such a momentous and inexplicable act. And why had the prisoner not acted before now?
Or is “act”really the right word? Is the getting up a choice the prisoner makes? Or is it something that happens to the prisoner somehow?
And what must that getting up be like? There never was up in that sense in the prior experience of the prisoner. The prisoner could not even have known there was an up.
How disorienting it must have been. How alarming, at least at first. And then to turn around. Around! A completely new orientation, one never before even conceivable. Imagine, if you can, what that must be like.
Getting up demands metanoia, a turning around of the mind, a reorientation. What brings this about? Necessity? But what is the force of that necessity, if indeed it is necessary? What demands that we come around to another heading?
The prisoner must somehow come to grips what is happening – the very realization that he (or she) has been a prisoner requires a turning around of the mind. What is it to come to realize that one has been a prisoner (of a kind) all of one’s life? What will this release from prison come to mean? How will the newly-released prisoner learn to cope with all the new experiences?
It seems such a simple thing: getting up. But what effects such a simple act (if it is an act) can have! And then: metanoia, turning around one’s mind (or having it turned around). What could be more under our own control than our minds, and yet such transformation seems always hard, almost impossible, and always at a great cost.
Can we get up? Will we?
Yesterday, I wrote about the haters. Today, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of the lovers in this world.
As I write these words, my wife, Kellie, my sister-in-law Joan, and my nephew Jackson are all on their way to New York City to raise their voices in support of efforts to deal with our climate change challenges. These challenges are significant, and to handle them it is going to take a concerted effort on the parts of individuals, organizations, institutions, and governments around the world. No small task!
I am very proud of Kellie, Joan, and Jackson. They are taking time out of their busy lives and money out of their own pockets to join in a direct way this struggle for a better world for all of us. They are doing it for love — love of their families, love of their communities, and love of our planet-home. As the t-shirt Joan is wearing today says, Love is the only answer. And so it is.
So I humbly ask for your prayers for Kellie, Joan, and Jackson, as well as all the other participants today in the People’s Climate March that their day might be peaceful, safe, and fruitful. A simple prayer for well-being is just one way to show them back some love for the love they are showing all of us today. (You can follow the action from a distance on Twitter — @Peoples_Climate and #PeoplesClimate.
I would also ask your prayers for the abolition of ignorance and willful stubbornness and human hybris. For such prayers to be answered, of course, it will take a miracle of epic proportions! But still, I pray and I ask you to do so, also. The abolition of ignorance would mean that those who deny the simple facts of climate chaos (and the real potential for devestating ecological, economic, and political disaster) must get their heads out of the sand, and in many cases, if you will excuse me, out of their asses and face up to these facts. May it please God, let such ignorance and the complicity it engenders to be abolished!
But, like the climate that is being whip-sawed, the solution to climate chaos is complicated. To be frank, it is not just a matter of recycling your newspaper (or of a simple calculation of the environmental costs of print vs. electronic production of newspapers).
First of all, it is a global problem requiring a global solution. As with any change which carries the risk of unintended consequences, no one wants to go first. On the one hand, we all seem to be followers in search of a leader, but on the other we no longer trust leaders. Most sovereign states and not a few individuals refuse to recognize the leadership of others. In many ways, that is understandable. We tend to think that no one knows any better than anyone else what is going on and what to do about it. We realize that, often, we follow “leaders” at our peril. I am all for that vigilance.
And yet we are sheepish followers in so many other ways that we, ourselves, refuse to recognize or acknowledge. Most of the time we live our lives unreflectively, and we are at the very least uncomfortable with having questions raised about how we live and what we value. Many times, we are violently reactive to such questioning. We think however we live, whatever we desire, and whatsoever we do is natural, and therefore right. Indeed, we fiercely defend our right to do what we do — without considering whether what we do is right or wrong. Fatally, we have lost the very notion of right and wrong, however much we pay lip service to the idea.
These are strong claims. My guess is that you do not like hearing them. You do not believe this pertains to you. You are wrong, though. It pertains to all of us (including me).
The second element to the complexity of finding solutions to climate chaos is capitalism. Capitalism is the root of this evil (indeed, it is the root of many evils). The propaganda of the nation in which I live has brainwashed us citizens into thinking that capitalism is, again, natural, and that there is no viable alternative to it, and in fact all proposed alternatives are evil. All three of these claims are patently false. They are as false as climate chaos is true — factually, demonstrably, plainly visibly true. Only heads in sand or asses cannot see these facts.
No, I take that back. Some people can’t see the truth. Some people won’t see the truth (it’s too uncomfortable). However, there are those who do see the truth but do not want anyone else to see it. Why not? Because the false serves their own selfish (and false) purposes very well. This is the ism part of capitalism at work. Capital — some seed money and tools to create additional convenience, comfort, pleasure, or wealth, is a fine and perhaps necessary thing. Capitalism is not fine, and it is not necessary. As an analogy, science is a fine and necessary thing (“All men by nature desire to know,” says Aristotle in his Metaphysics), but scientism is not a fine thing, and it is not necessary. The trouble with the isms is the same in both cases. Capital and science serve at the pleasure of us human beings, but isms demand that we bow down before them (and those that wield those isms like weapons). The isms claim to be “natural” and answer all questions and solve all problems. But in fact they create problems we never had before. And the “solutions” they offer are really only more problems rebranded in an Orwellian marking ploy as “solutions.” They never offer real solutions because the solutions we need are those that uproot the isms all together.
So I pray that those acts of love today in New York City (and around the world) that are directed at the climate chaos challenge will also sow additional seeds of love that will take root and uproot the stifling miasma of the isms that are killing the planet. Today is also International Peace Day. Let us make peace with the planet as well as with each other. The only way to do that is to bring the freedom back to the fake-free markets of corporate (i.e., fictitious entities) capitalism and to recognize the ignoble lie of infinite desire that is the core of the capitalist system.
To meet the challenge of climate chaos, we must first face the fact that it is real and threatening. Then we must admit that the economic monstrosity that is consuming the globe is at the root of the problem and work to uproot it. But we must go further and reconsider the very notions of work and wealth. Any basic understanding of capitalism includes the idea of the intense pressure for efficiency leading to profit. Efficiency and profit: are these really the goals of our labor? Although they have real world effects, both are abstractions. I pose just two questions for your consideration. First, if you were to enjoy your labor (because you chose it, it is creative, and you reap the benefits of it yourself), why hurry or try to get it over with quicker? Second, why can’t your labor and anything it produces be their own reward? If you can imagine satisfying answers to these questions, you will have rejected central tenets of capitalism. Of course, such satisfying answers would slow the world way down, and life as we currently experience it (if indeed we can catch our breath long enough to experience it) would evaporate. Such a transformation of wage-work into meaningful labor, however radically disruptive such a change would be (and it would be severe!), would very likely contribute to diminishing substantially our climate threats.
Are we willing to do this? I doubt it, quite frankly. Yet I fervently pray we will give it a try and be patient with each other as such change plays itself out. Except for the “one-percenters,” perhaps, we’d all be much happier in days to come.
To find the courage and the resources for such a transformation, you have to look inside yourself. Not the capitalist-consumerist generated fake-self that is a function of the current system, but your true self. And that means finding your true self. And that means finding a way to find your true self. We lack that way, for the most part, and so the prospects for finding our true selves are dim, and thus the solutions we need are unlikely to be immediately forthcoming. That is how hard our problems are!
It is a matter of a certain kind of faith. They say that faith is lacking today, but I disagree. I find that most people today are fervent believers. Alas, the object of their faith is a lie, a false god, an idol. What most of us worship is the beast, the monstrosity of capitalism. And capitalism has no more loyal adherents than those who are religious in the usual sense of that term. I admit, I’ve become seriously disillusioned with the religions (plural) of the world, mainly because of the stupid, mean-spiritied, and violent things they lead so many to do. Religion is conservative in the attenuated sense of that term, meaning only bound to the status quo (“It’s god’s will.”). That’s why capitalism loves religions.
It does not love religion (singular), however, because religion in that sense is not just another consumer good to market and sell or social networking club to join. Religion, in that sense, is about the transcendent, that which cannot be packaged, that which is not for sale. Religion, in that sense, recognizes that there is eternity as well as quarterly accounting statements and daily stock reports, and all makes sense only in terms of the eternal. Religion in this sense is, paradoxically, both a powerful and a weak thing, both a dangerous and a salutary thing. It is powerful in that it drives people who sense the transcendent to live and love not only for themselves and for today. It is weak in that uncontrollable and uncontrolling. It does not lend itself in any necessary way to be wielded as a sword or as surgical knife. And it is therefore dangerous for the same reason: it is easy to be mistaken about it, to think it is something that can be mastered and used for one’s own purpose. Yes, people do use “religion” as a club to beat others, but this weapon is not really religion, which is a weak force. The religions of this world are a masquerade, an often dangerous one. Real religion is salutary. It compels us to find our true selves, to find the real truth and meaning of our lives.
To deal with our climate issues, we will need to recover real religion. We will need to rediscover that we are bound to something that transcends the quotidian concerns of capitalist consumerism, that we are and ought to be in its service and not in the service of the priests of Baal of the current economic system. Because — again paradoxically — to be in the service of a transcendent weak force is to be free indeed; to be in the service of capitalism is to be a slave, watching from our chains as the planet is ever-more rapidly degraded.
So I pray we find this God…or let this God find us willing to be transformed, to have a change of mind and heart. To learn to love our world, our neighbors, and our true selves. That love would be true religion.
But I’m a realist, and it’s hard to be optimistic. If you’re reading this, you’re probably “doing well-enough” — maybe even very well. You look out your window and see the weather looking more or less like it always has (as if weather and climate are synonyms). You can’t or don’t see the problem, so for you there is nothing to fix. This little plea of mine is some left-wing claptrap that Fox News has sufficiently “debunked” for you. If all that’s accurate about you, I can hardly expect you to make changes or even want to make changes. But I say we’re like the frog in the pot of water that is slowly being heated. It’s all good…until it isn’t. But then it will be too late.
So maybe it doesn’t matter to you after all. But take a good look at your kids and your grandkids, and think again. Please. Make a change for love’s sake.
I learned a long time ago…that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying. A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?
— From Chaim Potok, The Chosen, p. 217.