Saturday, January 26, 2008

Towards an Answer 1

It’s All in the Mind

In the preceding ten or so posts I have attempted to come to terms with the problem or rather mystery of suffering. As regards terminology, I suppose I could more correctly say that suffering is a mystery (in the existential sense) that poses the human mind with certain intellectual and moral problems. I have adverted already to many of these problems and to certain theodicies advanced over the centuries by Christians and others to account for the presence of suffering in life. I have also been arguing that the desire (or dream as I have called it in several posts) for perfection has caused many intellectual and moral problems and much mental anguish to human beings over the many centuries they have lived together in civilization.

Each civilization (I count also the many civilizations that have disappeared here) with its particular culture(s) has advanced its own ways of dealing with the problems of evil and of suffering. One major way of dealing with these problems was, of course, through Religion. Before the Major World Religions advanced their specific approaches to the question of suffering, more primitive societies or cultures saw life and what they would have perceived to be their then known universe as being ruled by opposing gods who were constantly at war. These gods had to be propitiated constantly by appropriate sacrifices; oftentimes these sacrifices were human as well as animal or cereal. Then the Chinese, the ancient Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Minoans, the Greeks and the Romans, to name the more well known civilizations, all had their own pantheons of gods who were constantly warring with each other. Because of this continual "godly" struggle, there was suffering in these ancient worlds.

Into these worlds eventually there emerged the great world religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Judaism saw evil as coming into the world through mankind’s disobedience to God’s will – human nature’s desire to rebel against its lord and master – his/her pride, selfishness and greed – in short what the Bible termed “sin.” Christianity and Islam, the two other great monotheistic religions essentially grew out of the Old Testament to go their own specific ways on certain doctrinal matters. Christianity saw “Original Sin” as being the essential reason for suffering and evil in the world. Because of this sin humankind had to earn his/her way in the world through “the sweat of his brow,” a nice tidy metaphor for the necessary evil or suffering which is the result of the sin of disobedience by the first parents Adam and Eve. Christianity brought this myth to its logical conclusion – just as sin had entered the world through the First Adam’s disobedience, it had essentially been conquered by the sacrifice of the Second Adam, namely Jesus Christ. Jesus had by his death redeemed (bought back) humankind from Original Sin. This is a neat and tidy, if not aesthetically beautiful myth spearheaded by St Paul at the foundation of the Christian Church. God the Father had lovingly accepted his Son’s sacrifice for the sins of humanity and Jesus rose from the dead, thereby fundamentally conquering death and bringing to each and every believer the promise of eternal life with him in Paradise. All in all, then, this is the Christian solution for the mystery of evil. It’s all too neat for me, but nevertheless it’s a beautiful myth.

Buddhism advanced a more psychological approach to the question(s) posed by the existence of evil and suffering in the world. This, I believe, is why Buddhism with its many and varied practices of Meditation, each based on the centrality of the human breath and the stilling of the mind, has always been so attractive to Western psychologists and psychiatrists. Also, there are some who argue that Buddhism is more a way of living and being in the world, a sort of philosophy of life and living, than it is a Religion as such. There are a variety of approaches among Buddhists – from those who believe in reincarnation and in the various gods to those whom I will call here agnostic or purely psychological Buddhists.

I believe and feel that Siddartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni or the historical Buddha, advanced profound psychological principles whereby to live life and to not alone offer some plausible explanation for evil and suffering, but also to offer a psychological technique for effectively dealing with it in our day-to-day lives – this technique is that of Meditation. Essentially, then, I believe that Siddartha Gautama was one of the first to realise the profound truth that while the problems posed by the mystery of human suffering are very real, they are in another more profound sense, “all in the mind!” It is to this topic of the psychology of belief and to the topics of a philosophy of mind and that most basic of concepts namely consciousness that I wish to discuss in future posts.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took recently in Paris at the Rodin Museum. This is one of Rodin's most famous pieces called "Le Penseur" or "The Thinker!" Perhaps it could also have been called, equally as appropriately and aptly, by the title "The Questioner."

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Dream of Perfection 3

Almost all the great world religions have within their embrace religious orders, that is, communities of monks and nuns who live a common life under the rule of a particular founder. These religious orders set themselves apart from society as we know it and seek to live in accordance with their specific religious devotion that is usually characterized by the principles of their founder's religious practice. I have argued in a previous post that the monastic ideal is essentially romantic in the broadest sense of that term, that it shares in a certain Utopian spirit, that it seeks in a sense (to use essentially a Biblical metaphor) to bring about the Kingdom of God in miniature as it were. I realise that I am forcing language a bit here, but bear with me.

For example, the majority of the religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church observe the Rule of St Benedict that is a collection of precepts for the so-called contemplative religious life, others follow the Rule of St Augustine that stresses moderation and care for those in need, whereas the Rule of St Basil, one of the earliest rules for Christian religious living, tends to be followed by religious orders of the Orthodox Church. In addition, the individual Orders have their own regulations for the practical living out of their chosen Rule so as to be able to serve their own Order's charism more fully. I belonged to the Order of St Augustine for three years of my life, 1983-1986. This rule stressed the fact that the indidividual member or brother travelled to God in unity with his brothers. Saint Augustine believed that his brethren travelled together and gained further knowledge and closeness to God in community with one another. Indeed, our novice master and student master constantly adverted to what they termed “the Augustinian family.” I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I gained many practical personal skills from living in community – ability to listen to others as if they were your own brothers; to share my possessions with others in the community; to work together is a co-operative and friendly manner; to help another when he needed it; to visit and care for a sick member of the community; to prepare meals for that same community when my turn on the roster came up; to experience the joys of working together and to share another’s grief when a member of the community died. These are just some of the qualities and gifts one learns to appreciate in a community. Outside that, one learns great tolerance of others also – to accept their weaknesses as well as one’s own. In this manner I found that I grew greatly in self-knowledge. I remember also that St Augustine said that as one grows in the knowledge of God one also grows in self-knowledge.

Religious orders, as I have pointed out above, do not belong to the Catholic tradition only, but also can be found in the Anglican Communion and also in Buddhist societies such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea and Tibet. There is a number of monastic orders of monks and nuns, many of which follow a different school of teaching, such as Zen. A well-known Chinese Buddhist order is the ancient Shaolin order in Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. I am rather inclined to read and meditate much along the lines of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – the Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche who profess a distinctive form of Vajrayana Buddhism which is also related to the Shingon Buddhist tradition in Japan. Tibetan Buddhism is practised not only in Tibet but also in Mongolia.

It is beyond the scope of this present post to say much more by way of explanation of these monastic traditions whether in the East or West. Suffice it to say that they each in its own way gives witness to the desire for perfection and to the human desire for Utopia. In a certain sense one can say also that communism shares in this same desire for both ideals.

Above I have placed a picture I took at evening time of the Pope's Cross, Phoenix Park Dublin in 2002.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Dream of Perfection 2

It would seem that the dream of perfection, to this writer at least, is fundamentally romantic in origin.  I realise that using this term is anachronistic because the dream or even drive to perfection existed for many centuries before "romanticism" per se as a term was invented.  A good friend and former confrere of mine one Rev. Pádraig Daly, O.S.A. used always tell us Augustinian students (I was in the Augustinian Order for three years from 1983-6, but never took any serious vows) that the thrust to monasticism was essentially a Romantic urge.  Pádraig knew also that he was using the term "Romantic" anachronistically, though I understood his point.

The monastic urge is truly Romantic.  Let me firstly define this term.  The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (Alan Bullock and Oliver Stallybrass, eds., Fontana Books, 1977) defines Romanticism thus:

"In the Arts generally and in Philosophy , an overwhelming international tendency which swept across Western Europe and Russia at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, in reaction against earlier Neo-Classicism, Mechanism and assertion of the primacy of the perceiver in the world he perceives; hence theories of the imagination as such are central to it...[It] is usually held to have originated in French (especially Rousseau) and German (notably Herder, Kant, Fichte, Schelling) have spread to England and then to America." (opus citatum, pp. 548-549)

To put it simply, one finds that periods which stress the primacy of the rational are followed by periods which stress the ascendancy of the emotions. In reaction to the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment the Romantic movement was born.  It stressed strong emotions such as trepidation, horror, awe before the great works of nature, a new sense of the importance of the individual, a deep appreciation of intuition and the beginnings of an understanding of the unconscious which Freud would later exploit to the full.  Romanticism then, while not denying the importance of the rational, reached beyond it to explore the irrational and the non-rational elements of life.  Hence, there is a new appreciation of the exotic, one might even say the weird.  We get the rise of the Gothic novel with the likes of such writers as Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) etc which exploited this new concern for the really horrific and frightening.  Artists, writers, musicians, composers and explorers came to the fore.  We get a new sense of the importance of the individual person and the importance of the individual imagination in interpreting the world for him or herself.  Romanticism emphasized intuition, imagination, and feeling, to a point that has led to some Romantic thinkers being accused of irrationalism.

To finish this post I wish to return to one of my favourite English Romantic writers, namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the quintessential philosopher of English Romanticism and the friend and collaborator with William Wordsworth. (1770-1850)  As well as being a philosopher he was an accomplished poet, a great critic and an excellent editor of journals.  Added to that, he was a committed walker and mountain climber - typically Romantic!   Coleridge's mind was constantly bombarded with intuitions and ideas.  He was essentially a creative genius who ruled nothing out as grist for his writer's mill.  I feel and believe that Coleridge was possessed of a singular desire towards perfection, which I have described both in my last post and at the start of this present one. At the university of Cambridge he was introduced to political and theological ideas then considered radical, including those of the poet Robert Southey.  Coleridge joined Southey in a plan, soon to be abandoned, to found a utopian commune-like society, called pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania on the banks of the Susquehanna River .  This was almost a sort of "religious community" though obviously with a more artistic impulse, but it was based on the ideal of sharing everything in common.  The idea in pantisocracy was that all the members of the commune would share in the government of it.  Coleridge once said that his young mind had early "become habituated to the vast" because his father used bring him out walking late at night to view the night sky.  He was thus open to seeking and searching for the "unity behind the multeity" as he called it - the One God or Force behind all of nature.  One could cogently argue that this urge is akin to the mystical urge as is found in the great mystics of the Catholic tradition and indeed those of the Protestant traditions, not to mention those gurus in the Eastern traditions of meditation.

All of the foregoing paragraph suggests a desire for the perfect, or even more romantically conjures up dreams of the perfect - dreams which bathe themselves in the very waters of Utopia.

Can any piece of art capture the dream of perfection better than Rodin's famous and most beautiful piece of sculpture - The Kiss? I took this photograph October 2007 while visiting my friends Mat and Isa in Paris.