Sunday, April 29, 2012

Environmental Vow 21: Practical Philosophy

A Positive Alternative:

I’ve rejected a variety of alternatives that some people have put forward in order fill the void left by the decline in old-school religious faith and patriotism.  But I have yet to make any sort of suggestion of a viable alternative.  This is the point where I unveil what keeps me, personally going.  I am fully aware that there are elements of my personal belief system that are more than a little “dodgy”.  Where these problems come up, I will attempt to spell out the conceptual issues.  Using the ideals that motivate my existence as an example,  I will then develop some generic parameters that will help others come up with their own personal solutions to the problems I am attempting to deal with in this essay.

Secular Daoism:

Years ago through an extraordinary series of unusual happenstances, I was initiated into a Daoist lineage.  This involved a martial arts club, a man who was very young and impressionable (myself), a couple Chinese immigrants with zero English language, and, a few other immigrants who’s ability as translators were abysmal.   Over several decades of trying to wrestle with the issues that I have raised in the preceding parts of this essay, I found myself increasingly identifying myself with the Chinese religious tradition known as “Daoism”.   As I expanded and deepened my understanding of this faith I found that I was not pursuing it as anything like what an “orthodox” Chinese religious Daoist would understand the term as meaning, but instead what a Westerner who had benefited from both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment would understand it as meaning.  In addition, I found out that there are a fair number of other Westerners would similarly call themselves “Daoists”, but without understanding how different their worldview is from its Chinese counterpart.

It is quite difficult to exactly define what is or isn’t Daoism, which has led to a great deal of wrangling both between individual scholars, and, between scholars and practitioners.  Traditionally, the term has been associated with a small number of core texts:  the Dao De Jing, the Zhuangzi, and, the Liezi.  There are a great many other texts in the Daoist canon, but these (along with the Nei-yeh, which I will discuss further on), are a sort of “absolute basic” library that the religion is based upon.

The first complexity that people have to understand is that all three of these texts seem to have been created before there was a religion called “Daoism”.  Indeed, the scholarly consensus seems to be that if the authors of any of these books met folks who called them a “Daoist” they wouldn’t know what people were talking about.

Orthodox religious Daoists have tended to associate these three books with three different historicial personages:  Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi.  In contrast, modern scholars tend to believe that these texts are the result of an oral “wisdom tradition” that existed for a long time and which resulted in some editor writing down poems, pithy sayings and gnomic stories that he had heard from others.  In turn, the books were then changed by editors over many years as different people came out with improved “editions” until finally an “approved” version was codified by a single specific person.  At that point, the process of mutation stopped and we end up with the versions we have now.

Again, what these books are about is another complex question.  Probably the best way to characterize them is to say that they are about finding the practical “rules of thumb” of life that allow someone to live with a minimum amount of friction both with other people and the world in general.  Some of these rules can be summarized as follows:#

  • Our understanding is limited, so limited that we often don’t even understand how limited.  As a result, it is important to be humble in our assumptions about how the world operates.
  • It is generally a good idea to avoid unnecessary effort----more harm is done by doing too much than by doing not enough.
  • The world operates by various laws or general principles.  Someone who understands these laws and principles can accomplish a great deal by working in harmony with them. 
  • Conversely, people who try to do things by fighting against these laws, tend to fail.
  • A great deal of the ability that comes from working with these principles and laws comes spontaneously from within the individual who often cannot explain why he does what he or she does, or why it works.
  • Having said that, the way to develop these spontaneous abilities usually seems to come from sustained, dedicated practice.
  • While sometimes violence is necessary, it is inherently a bad thing.
  • Emptiness and passivity are of at least equal value---if not more---than substance and action.
  • What passes for conventional wisdom is of very little value when it comes to making important life choices. 

These general principles can be applied to just about every element of human existence, from warfare to gardening.  As a result, people from all strata of society from different times believe that they have learned important life lessons from studying these books.   In effect, they are representatives of a type of literature that was very important in the ancient Western world, but which has since died out:  practical philosophy.

People often find it hard to believe, but at one time philosophy was considered a very practical field of endeavour.  It was practical because it dealt with the very important issue of how people were supposed to live their lives.   To give someone a flavour of this sort of practical wisdom, consider the following quotations from the School of Stoicism:

  • "Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life."    Marcus Aurelius
  • "Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise."  Marcus Aurelius
  • "Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always to take full note of fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock."  Seneca
  • A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation…you have to catch yourself doing it before you can correct it.  Seneca 
  • "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire."  Epictetus
  • "Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them."  Epictetus
  • "That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away."  Seneca the Younger
  • "Virtue is nothing else than right reason." Seneca the Younger

The reason why most people haven’t heard about this sort of philosophy is because it was persecuted and pretty much stamped out by the early Christian Church.   After the first Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity, there was a period of transition that pretty much ended in the reign of Emperor Theodosius, who issued an edict closing all philosophical schools and pagan Temples across the Empire.  There seems to be some scholarly debate# about whether or not the Library of Alexandria was destroyed at the same time, but the general consensus seems to be that the transition to Christian orthodoxy seems to have been a time when there was a great deal of persecution (either formal or informal) against both the schools of philosophy and paganism.

It isn’t hard to understand why.  These ancient schools tended to elevate reason above authority, which would have been seen as a tremendous affront to the authority of both the Church hierarchy and the revealed doctrine of Christianity itself.   Beyond that, there were schools that went to the point of actually arguing quite cogently against the existence of any God at all:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
- Epicurus [341–270 B.C.

Obviously, an overtly atheistic philosophy would be anathema to Christianity.  But just as unnerving for early Christians was evidence that the Gospels had been directly influenced by the philosophical school known as Cynicism.

Consider, if you will, the following parallels between Cynic philosophers and quotations from the Gospels.#

  • It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. (Luke 13:19)

  • However small a seed is, once it's sown in suitable ground, its potential unfolds, and from something tiny it spreads out to its maximum size... I'd say brief precepts and seeds have much in common. Great results come from small beginnings. (Seneca)

  • And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27/Matthew 10:38)

  • If you want to be crucified, just wait. The cross will come. If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right, then it's to be carried through, and your integrity maintained. (Epictetus)

  • But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. (Luke 6:24/Matthew 6:2)

  • The King, said Diogenes, was the most wretched person there was, surrounded by all that gold, yet afraid of poverty. (Dio 6.34)

  • Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20/Matthew 5:3)

  • Only the person who has despised wealth is worthy of God. (Seneca EM XVIII 13)

  • And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. (Matthew 10:28/Luke 12:5)

  • What tyrant or thief or court can frighten anyone who does not care about his body or its possessions? (Epictetus)

  • Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other as well... Love your enemies, and do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. (Luke 6:27-29/Matthew 5:39-44)

  • A rather nice part of being a Cynic comes when you have to be beaten like an ass, and throughout the beating you have to love those who are beating you as though you were father or brother to them. (Epictetus III xxii 54)

  • How shall I defend myself against my enemy? By being good and kind towards him, replied Diogenes. (Gnomologium Vaticanum 187)

  • Someone gets angry with you. Challenge him with kindness in return. Enmity immediately tumbles away when one side lets it fall. (Seneca, de ira II xxxiv 5)

  • It's a pitiably small-minded person who gives bite for bite. (Seneca, de ira 11 xxxiv 1)

  • Socrates said, Follow these instructions, if you are willing to listen to me at all, so that you may live happily, letting yourself look a fool to others. Let anyone who wants to, offer you insult and injury... If you want to live happily, a good man in all sincerity, let all and sundry despise you. (Seneca EM LXXI 7)

The danger that Cynicism poses to Christianity comes from the fact that it is obvious to anyone who is exposed to it that the Jesus of the Gospels seems to have come out of a tradition that was extant before his birth.  If so, then it becomes very hard to believe that Christ is in some sense a divine messenger with a startlingly unique message.  Remove the claim that Jesus is in some non-metaphorical but actually literal sense a “son of God”, and he becomes one person amongst many who have taught in the town squares of the Roman Empire.  And if Christ ceases to be divine, then the divine authority of the Christian clergy disappears too----and with it all of their temporal power.   It is obvious that the cynics---above all other schools of practical philosophy---had to be erased from the popular knowledge of Christendom.

Since practical philosophy inevitably leads to at least questioning of orthodoxy and at “worst” atheism, it has suffered De facto persecution insofar as atheism itself has been persecuted.  And it is only very recently indeed that many people have been able to openly proclaim their atheistic beliefs.#   Indeed, it is currently the case that seven US state constitutions ban atheists from holding public office#.  More tellingly, it is considered “political suicide” for any politician to openly proclaim his or her atheism.  This is supported by a 2006 poll that suggests that as many as 50% of American voters would not vote for an atheist---no matter how eminently qualified---for the position of President.   In fact because of this pressure, only one member of the US Congress, Pete Stark, has ever openly proclaimed himself an atheist.  Add to this the pressure one can receive from family, friends, colleagues, etc, and it becomes obvious that there is a significant price to pay for openly expressing anything like an atheist point of view.

In the face of this still very real, but receding, climate it makes sense that practical philosophy as a genre of literature is only recently coming back into people’s consciousness.   The Christian is a jealous God.  And his followers are all too willing to punish anyone who tries to usurp His role in dictating what is and is not a moral way of life.


Jim714 said...

Greetings CWO:

Your post seems to have two distinct parts. I really enjoyed the first part where you give a summary of 'secular Daoism'. I thought this was really thoughtful and I think I will borrow from it in the futre when western Daoism comes up for discussion. Much appreciated.

I didn't find your discussion of Christianity as attractive. I assume your view regarding Cynicism and Christianity comes from Crossan? Personally, I think such a relationship is highly unlikely. Not impossible, of course, but not one for which, I think there is much evidence. Similarities in phrasing in metaphor are suggestive, but I don't think they are strongly evidential. For example, many of these kinds of teachings are simply a part of the Jewish heritage. One doesn't need to bring in a Cynic influence to account for them.

Finally, 'Christianity' is a huge topic and it is very difficult to make coherent generalizations. I often ran into the same problem when I was lecutring on 'Buddhism'. For example, how would Christian anti-slavery commitments, beginning in the 17th century, fit in with your generalization?

As always, your posts are thoughtful and rewarding.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Howdy Jim:

Thanks for the comments.

With regard to Cynicism and Christianity, I originally came across the relationship between them through Crossan, but these quotes come from another source. When I transfer from my manuscript to Blogger the footnotes get dropped. Here's my citation:

My thanks to the Common Paine blog at which is where I found these quotes---and many more--- and F. Gerald Downing’s book Christ and the Cynics, Sheffield Academic Pr (October 1988), where Common Paine itself found them.

I don't think that it is necessary to actually show any sort of direct relationship between Christianity and Cynicism to undermine scriptural authority. All that is necessary is to show that what is depicted in the Gospels is very similar to other texts current at the time of their creation. What this does is undermine the idea that the Christian message is startlingly innovative. I remember how much it struck me when I read Livy's "Life of Romulus" that the depiction of Romulus' death and "resurrection" were similar to the description of Christ. I think that if ordinary people learn more about the literature of late pagan Rome, they would find that the Gospels are pretty much run-of-the-mill.

With regard to Christianity, I find myself increasingly jaded by the whole movement. Again, I dropped the following footnote:

There are charges that the church organized death camps at a place called Skythopolis for pagan intellectuals and that the Library of Alexandria was burned on the order of the Pope, Siricius---and vigorous denials of same. What seems to have been beyond question, however, is that there seems to have been a generalized war on anything that was oppositional to Christianity almost as soon as it gained enough power to get away with it.

Of course, you find arguments back and forth. You can also find very intelligent, tolerant people who are Christians. My experience, however, is that these enlightened folks invariably find themselves marginalized by the church. I have come to the conclusion that there is a worm in the core of the church and that worm is the concept of "authority". Unless the church rids itself of that bug, it is always going to do more harm than good. There are institutions that do not operate on the basis of authority, but rather collegiality. I think we are at the point in human development where we make that transition. But I hope to get to that later on in my essay.

Best wishes to you too,

the Cloudwalking Owl