Goethe and Ryōkan as Exemplars of How to Live

Writing on compassion in early Buddhism, Anālayo notes that the primary form of compassion was teaching the Dharma, i.e., the Buddhist teachings on the cessation of suffering. But as Anālayo also notes, verbal instruction is not the only way to teach: teaching, “…can also take place through teaching by example” (Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, 16). Indeed, teaching and learning by example are extremely important, and often unconscious. We don’t always realize that others, especially children, learn by our example, nor that we learn from others’ example. One important question, of course, is who do we take as our exemplars of a well lived life? For the kind of person we choose as our life-well-lived-exemplar implies a choice about the kind of life we wish to lead.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the life of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832), who was an important German poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, and scientist. —A person much praised by Nietzsche, as we will see. And I want to compare Goethe with the Japanese Zen monk, poet, calligrapher, and recluse, Ryōkan (1758 to 1831).

There are a number of things that make these two figures particularly interesting to me. First, they are both writers and poets. Second, though they have been influential in very different ways, both their lives and works have inspired many. Third, since they are both writers and poets, they both belong to that category of being, so to speak, that Nietzsche seems to hold in the highest esteem, namely, the artist, the creator. As Nietzsche writes in his Zarathustra: Continue reading

Suffering and Platonic Lives, Platonic Selves

How would you feel if you were never to read another book in your life? What about if you were never to ski, or if not skiing, then some other sport? How would you feel if you could not live in the city? What about the country? What about the suburbs? These are only a few questions that pertain to the kinds of lives we might live. Some of us would be unmoved by life without books and others could not bear not living in the country. But, I take it, most of us do not think that there is only one kind of life to live as a human being, as a person. We do not, in other words, think that there is some sort of Platonic form of the perfect human life. We acknowledge a variety of possibilities; moreover, it is part of our liberal heritage to see this as a good thing. If for no other reason than the fact that we think imposing a particular life on someone, particularly when it doesn’t fit, is to rob them of their autonomy and ultimately to make them suffer.

So we suffer when a life we do not choose is imposed upon us. But notice what happens when we shift from thinking about the Platonic form of the perfect human life, to thinking about the Platonic form of a particular life. I am assuming that what is true of me here is true of many, if not most, others. That is, I have a tendency to conceptualize the explicit form of my life; I think of myself as a philosophy professor, one who likes to hike, one who gets meaning out of the natural world, one who loves animals, one who is at least not half bad at writing, one who works on Wittgenstein, Dōgen, and Nietzsche, etc. These are all things that I have, if not explicitly chosen, then at least endorsed for my life. These are the things that go into making up who I am. Since I have chosen them, I do not suffer them. Or so it seems.

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The Desirability of Desire

A fairly standard, but I would argue flawed, understanding of Buddhism says that the root cause of suffering is desire—and a related interpretation says even that desire itself is suffering. While those are overly simplistic and problematic interpretations in themselves, some interpreters of Buddhism go even further and say that enlightenment requires the cessation of all desire. If we take that literally as a call for having no desires whatsoever, then it is difficult to take that seriously. After all, if you think about it, it’s pretty clear that either one engages desire or one engages death. Moreover, it’s hard to understand what the Buddhists are doing if they don’t desire enlightenment. The issue in Buddhism is not so much one of desire as it is attachment to the object of desire, or so I would argue.

However, what I want to focus on is, we might say, the desirability of desire. That is, even if the problematic interpretations of Buddhism that say desires themselves are suffering is wrong, might it not still be the case that desire itself, when compared with the having of the object desired, is not so pleasurable? In other words, the answer to the following question is obvious: Which would you rather have, the desire or the object of the desire? The object, of course! But is that always right?

In my early twenties, I think I was going for a walk thinking about some girl I had a crush on, I had the thought that desire itself could be more pleasurable than the actual having of the object desired—that the pursuit/longing was more pleasurable than the attainment, the having of the object. I thought this is pretty interesting; in fact I was rather surprised by it. At the time, I proudly mentioned this realization to one of my paternal half-brothers. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember him being dismissive. I don’t mention this out of some grudge. Rather, I want to say that I can understand his dismissiveness, given that I couldn’t explain it well myself at the time and given that it may well seem counterintuitive at first. Continue reading

Pain vs. Pleasure: An Incongruity of Sympathies

If you are reading this, then I am guessing that you are not suffering too badly, nor are you having the time of your life—although I guess it would be rather flattering if either of those things were happening and you were that determined to read this. But assuming you’re not, let me ask you to imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are suffering greatly. There are people who are being burned alive unable to escape their homes on fire, who have just lost their spouse, children who are gasping their last breath from starvation, and on and on. It is hard, but imagine them. ——However, and thankfully, there are other people having other experiences, as well. Now, if I may, let me ask you to clear your mind for a moment, and imagine the most nondescript, boring thing you can. Hold that in your imagination for a few moments. ——And now, if I may be a demanding author one more time, let me ask you to once again imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are having a wonderful time. There are people who after years of trying are right now finally giving birth to their first child, people who have just settled onto the beach for the first day of their long-awaited honeymoon, people who overcame great obstacles, years of discrimination, and they have just found out that they were admitted into the University of their dreams on a full scholarship, and on and on.

Yesterday while writing a short piece on consciousness, it occurred to me that there may well be an interesting, if not also troubling, incongruity between our empathetic reactions to different kinds of events. My hypothesis is that the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel some sort of empathetic pain on behalf of those they were imagining suffering; however, the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel little or no empathetic joy on behalf of those they were imagining ecstatic or joyful. To be clear, I think this is an empirical question, not one that can be argued a priori. Perhaps it reveals something of myself; perhaps I am projecting my own responses onto others.

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Atlanta Protest 11.11.16

What happened last night in Atlanta with the protest that organized in the Historic Fourth Ward Park, next to the Masquerade club, and across from the recently developed Ponce City Market (cough, “gentrification”), and then proceeded to march through Atlanta, taking an indirect route past mlkjr-drive-protest-picGeorgia State University and the State Capital building? More importantly, why were people gathering and protesting? Why were they disrupting the traffic, tying up intersections? From a variety of sources, it’s quite clear that there is either confusion or outright misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what happened and why. Having been there from 6 pm to 9:30, this is my take. I know that I leave many issues out that the protest concerned (may I be forgiven for that).

Even though I went to bed later than usual last night (around 1:00 am), I was not able to sleep past 5:00 am. This is in part because I’m still struggling with the time change, and in part because the energy, the import, and the chants from last night’s protest and march echo in my mind. So, getting up I fed the animals and sat down listening to the National News broadcast on NPR. They reported on protests around the country. In Oregon, things were more chaotic than in Atlanta, as one person was shot and police used teargas and flash-bang grenades to try to break things up. Thankfully, that did not happen in Atlanta last night.

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The Metaphysics of Choice—How Abortion Gives Birth to Life

“If I had watered the flowers yesterday, they wouldn’t be dead today.” Such counterfactual statements are tricky because there is no way to confirm their truth, since in this case I didn’t water the flowers. For it’s always possible that they would have died anyway due to some unknown cause or because they needed watering two days ago if they were not to die today. Still, even though counterfactuals present such problems, we can still make reasonable claims about them. Consider, for example: “If Barnes had not had the flu, then he would have gone on the trip and died in the plane crash.” It’s possible something else would have prevented his going, but he could well assess for himself that nothing else simultaneously happened to keep him from going (no death in the family, for example) so that he most likely would have been on the plane if he hadn’t had the flu—and, thus, the flu saved him.

I often think about such cases because I think they point out how the smallest seeming choices and occurrences ripple forward in time to great consequence. One such example in my own life was in October 2008. My then wife, Jennie, and I had in July moved to San Marcos, Texas from Iowa after I graduated with my PhD but could not find a tenure-track position anywhere. We moved so she could do an MFA in creative writing (poetry). But then we decided to get divorced in early October. While I was feeling alone, and impatient not to be, in late October when I was asked whether I wanted to go to Austin for dinner and drinks with a few friends and a woman visiting one of them from out of town, my initial response to myself was, “no.” I’m not much for going out, but then I reconsidered and decided to do it after all. Having made that choice, on March 15th, 2009, I ended up moving into an apartment in a row house basement in Washington, DC, with that friend of a friend. I’m fairly confident that that would not have happened if I had not changed my mind about going out with them to Austin, for she was leaving the next day and I would not have seen her again otherwise, at least not under those same conditions.

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Trump’s Words, Trumps Deeds

Perhaps you or someone you know has said some version of, “I’m interested in what Clinton did, not in what Trump said,” in regard to Trump’s 2005 hot mic recording in which he brags to Billy Bush about groping and kissing women without consent because he can get away with it as famous and rich as he is. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that his denial of ever having done such things is true. We can still see a horrible problem with what Trump said if we consider that words are in fact deeds.

When someone says, “I’m interested in what Clinton did, not in what Trump said,” they seem to be thinking of this kind of case: “Bob always talks about climbing Mount Sumeru, but Sara actually did it!” In such a case we can easily see the point of emphasizing Sara’s actually having done it. But consider how the Trump example differs:

1) In the context of loving relationship, if one person says to another, “I love you,” they are not merely speaking in contrast to doing. That is, by saying, “I love you,” the one person expresses and affirms their love, models the kind of behavior they want to see in the relationship, and thereby partially constitutes the existing context of the loving relationship.

2) In the context of a culture that regularly devalues women, treats them as mere sex objects, denies their needs and wants, etc., if a person says to another, “I grope pussy when I want because I’m famous, ha ha, isn’t that great,” they are not merely speaking in contrast to doing. That is, by saying those things Trump expresses and affirms the culture of misogyny, models the kind of behavior he wants to see, and thereby partially constitutes the existing context of the misogynistic, rape culture.

The point here is not to compare whether 2) is worse than anything either of the Clintons has ever done; the point is that Trump is not merely speaking, he is doing something in the hot mic recording, just as he is doing something every time he opens his mouth.

Does a Robustly Just Society Require Just Citizens?

Yesterday in one of my Introduction to Philosophy classes we were discussing the introduction to Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? It’s an engaging read and great for the classroom, particularly as he adroitly handles a number of real world examples. One of them concerns the issue of price gouging in the context of Florida post hurricane Charlie. After considering several arguments for and against laws against price gouging, which he uses to illustrate the way in which discussions of justice hinge on people’s ideas about the nature and role of welfare, freedom, and virtue, he writes:

So when we probe our reactions to price gouging, we find ourselves pulled in two directions: We are outraged when people get things they don’t deserve; greed that preys on human misery, we think, should be punished, not rewarded. And yet we worry when judgments about virtue find their way into law. (9)

One of the main issues he’s concerned to clarify is the problem of government legislating conceptions of who we ought to be, i.e., virtuous people or not, and what conception of virtue (or not). One problem is that when the government legislates the kind of person we are to be (virtuous and what counts as virtuous), our freedom to make of ourselves what we will is limited. As he goes on to write immediately after the above passage: Continue reading

The Atheist’s Values and Motivations: Are the Ungodly Likely Immoral?

In a recent article, “Exceptionally Articulate: Obama’s eloquence fails to quiet charges that he does not believe in God or America,” a key issue is the relevance of Obama’s faith to his being worthy of being president. The consensus seems to be that most voters would not be happy if he were not a man of faith. I assume that this is because voters think they can judge a lot about a person from his or her beliefs about god. A person of faith would more likely than not, the thinking goes, be more ethical. For many that presumably means, for example, being pro-life (though for others it might mean being pro-choice). Nevertheless, if you are religious, then you have a set of moral standards that you feel obligated to adhere to. Whereas, if you are an ungodly atheist, you have no moral code to guide your actions. So the thinking goes.

But really, is it more likely for the ungodly to have no moral code, conscious or unconscious, than it is for the ostensibly religious? There are at least two important issues lurking here. The first concerns from whence a person’s moral compass originates. The second concerns whether it is possible to have or justify having a moral compass without their existing some sort of god in whom to ground values—the god who sets the northern pole.

Starting with the second issue, if you study even a bit of philosophy, you quickly see that philosophers have long made sense of value independently of God’s fiat. One place to look would be Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s recent book Morality without God? I have not read the book, but I have listened to a podcast interview with him on Philosophy Bites. From that interview, the book would seem to be a good bet for those wanting to know more. The main point is that we can make sense of value independently of god stipulating what is good, bad, right, wrong (And if arguments against the divine command theory are sound, then we should do so). For example, the most basic form of utilitarianism identifies the good with pleasure, the bad with pain or the absence of pleasure, and right action as that action which maximizes the good, i.e., pleasure, for the greatest number. Utilitarianism may not be the correct account of value and right action, but it at least gives an easy to understand example of how you can get ethics without god.

Going back to the first issue, where do we learn to be moral? Where does a person’s moral compass come from? I take it that there is a relatively straightforward answer to this question: your moral compass comes from your parents and teachers, those who explicitly said, “Don’t lie,” and “Don’t’ be unfair; share with your sister,” and those who set either good or bad examples by their behavior. It’s certainly true that if you had a religious upbringing, then you probably also were taught something about being moral in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. And your parents and teachers likely were inculcated with morality in similar ways. This is no surprise, since religions do often center around morality (Though here is an interesting article that emphasizes other important roles for religion).

Nevertheless, while religion often plays a role in learning about ethics, many of the contexts in which we learn to be more or less ethical creatures do not explicitly appeal to religion or god. We learn that lying, stealing, and murder are wrong often enough without someone saying, “Because god says so,” or “Because you’ll go to hell if you do.” The point I want to emphasize is that while religion happens to often play an explicit role, it just as often doesn’t. And if god is not necessary for explaining value and we can (and often do) learn to be moral without appeal to religion, then there is no reason to think that atheists are likely to be any less moral than those who believe in god and go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue.

One possible objection to my argument concerns our motivation for acting ethically. The person of faith fears hellfire and acts accordingly; the ungodly atheist may think the right thing to do is to maximize pleasure for the greatest number, but really when it suits him/her, why not just maximize one’s own pleasure—nothing will happen if one fails intentionally or not to do the right thing. Plato considers this issue in his Republic. It is argued by Glaucon that we only act ethically if we think others are looking, this is the ring of Gyges example. And thus, without the fear of some sort of punishment, there is no real reason to act morally.

That is an important objection, one that is too complicated to adequately address here and now. So I will end with a pointed question: when people who are religious, god fearing folk act ethically, are they really only acting ethically because they fear hellfire and eternal separation from god? Or do they act ethically, not lying, stealing, or murdering their friends or even strangers, simply because they believe those things to be wrong?