Archive for December, 2011

The Limits Of Justice

Posted in Agathos, Ethics, Homeric, Stoicism with tags , , , on December 22, 2011 by Joe Callahan

The news here in the Boston area has been reporting the end to a two decade mystery. In 1992 a young woman was murdered in her home by an intruder. She was repeatedly stabbed and left for dead. The woman, Kathleen Dempsey, was still conscious and called 911. A dispatcher decided for some unfathomable reason to treat it as a hoax. After five hours or so the authorities arrived too late and found her dead. Now after nineteen years the police have reported they know who did it.

This was striking news to me because I knew Kathy quite well. She was a good friend and a kind spirit. I was very fond of her. It was a very difficult time for many people within a mutual circle of friends. The brutal nature of her death and the knowledge that nobody had been caught has always remained in the back of my mind.

Now that finally her killer has been discovered the news often refers to justice. I’m finding myself strangely dissatisfied. The killer is a nasty specimen already in prison for the murder of another woman. So he will get more jail time? Is that it? Is that justice? His picture has appeared in some news reports and I am not ashamed to say my first impulse was to want his sorry carcass hanging from a yardarm.

The purpose of this blog has been to explore the idea of Agathos, what is “good” in the sense of what is worthy, a fully human life. The earliest primal foundations of Agathos come from Homer’s epics. The measure of justice in that worldview is clear. When Achilles’ cousin and companion Patroclus was slain by Hector, Achilles in turn slew Hector. In his rage and grief Achilles tied Hector’s corpse to the back of his chariot and dragged it around the city of Troy a few times. It has its appeal.

The problem is that 20 years ago the main suspicion for this murder fell on another man. I certainly thought he did it. Many others did too. There were some compelling reasons for believing this individual was guilty. If it turns out that he was indeed innocent then some act of vendetta would have been unjustified and only added an additional tragic note. It is a sobering thought. I suppose that is why over the centuries we have decided to be a society of laws and be less quick (more or less) to reach for the proverbial sword.

As Greek philosophy progressed, the idea of human virtue became more balanced. Courage and justice came to sit alongside wisdom and moderation as the big four. Aristotle came to the conclusion that people perform bad acts out of a combination of ignorance and/or irrational desires. The bad man is deficient in some way. This is thankfully not some religious dictum calling us to simply turn the other cheek. However, understanding that ignorance or imbalance is what leads people to do ill seems to require some degree of restrain if not compassion. It is needed if we, ourselves, want to be balanced individuals. Engaging in some vengeful act of retaliation may only compound our miseries and lead us to bad, unworthy actions of our own. Socrates and later the Stoics told us that while others can do us injury they cannot truly harm us if they cannot make us abandon our character, our virtues, our choice to be Agathos.

It all makes sense but its a hard bit of medicine to swallow. So what do we do with someone like the SOB currently sitting in jail?

It may not be the course of wisdom or moderation to seek retribution. Maybe its not really our place to put this guy down like a rabid dog. However it is certainly right for us to prevent ill from occurring. If we cannot stop it from happening initially then we stop it from happening again. If such an abhorrent act could be prevented in the moment with everything including lethal force then I can’t think of a single valid ethical objection. Every martial tradition I have practiced teaches that the individual has the right to self-defense even if we do not seek or wish to do harm. After the fact, maybe preventing ill means keeping him where he is no longer threat. Maybe some compassionate soul can help him out of his ignorance and illness. It sure as hell wouldn’t be me. I’m a Stoic not a saint.

I don’t have a good simple clean solution. There isn’t one. There is pretty much just the realization that what was done cannot be undone. We engage in damage control and comfort the living. Its a hard lesson that we cannot control or fix or change everything. We can only choose our responses, stop the ills we can stop, live as fully and well as we are able and aid others in doing the same.

I have thought of Kathy often over the years and I am glad to see at least a potential end to uncertainty. It may bring some modicum of peace to her family and friends. For myself, after twenty years I am less the rageful Achilles seeking heroic justice and maybe have a tiny bit more wisdom and moderation. But I am still saddened.

Get Happy in a Godless Universe! – An Interesting Article

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Uncategorized with tags , on December 8, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Does a spiritual life provide us with “happiness” in any meaningful sense of the word? It’s probably evident from what I write in this blog that my view of the world is shaped more by philosophy than a set of spiritual beliefs. However, there is overlap between the two. Much of what is involved in living a life of Agathos has real spiritual meaning. But will it make you happy? If we define happiness as seeking a never-ending state of blissed out general giddiness then it doesn’t have much relevance to a good and meaningful life (or reality for that matter). That kind of happiness is pretty transitory. I’m more inclined to think in terms of Eudaimonia. But much of current philosophy and science is quick to discount the spiritual dimension of life and whatever meaning, satisfaction or “happiness” it may bring. Most of what we do and and desire is seen as mere byproduct of chemicals and conditioning processes which we now understand better courtesy of empirical study. As knowledge advances will the spiritual life and its consolations be doomed to the proverbial dustbin of history?

I was very interested to run across this article by Owen Flanagan, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience At Duke University. His work lies in “philosophy of mind, ethics, and comparative philosophy”. His article seems to be an encapsulation of his recent book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. I haven’t yet read the book but am looking forward to doing so after I manage to get through the small pile currently on the nightstand.

Flanagan explores Buddhism and what it offers for human well being and happiness regardless of religious context. If we assume that we are material creatures in a purely material universe can Buddhism be “naturalized” and be of use in a material life? Naturalism is a funny term as it can have different shades of meaning. In this case it refers to the secular humanist idea in philosophy that nothing exists outside of observable nature and so no supernatural explanations are valid. So can Buddhist practice (its meditation practices, its metaphysics, its guidelines for living) still provide a blueprint for human flourishing without the religious parts?

The real takeaway paragraph that grabbed my attention:

“I believe that “Buddhism naturalized” is a serious contender, along with Confucianism and Aristotelianism, for a great wisdom tradition that offers a viable philosophy for 21st century secularists. It might seem odd to recommend these ancient theories as good for us now, but I do really think all three are worth a second look. The reason is that all three of these philosophies, from over 2 millenia ago, are less theistic, and thus more rational, in their core philosophy that the three Abrahamic traditions.”

I found this passage of interest for a couple of reasons. First, I can’t help but be pleased whenever I see an academic philosopher seriously addressing how a philosophy might actually help one live. There are a few writers in recent times like Pierre Hadot and Alisdair MacIntyre who address such concerns. But a great deal of current philosophy seems more interested in promoting politicized agendas or maintaining an intellectual elite insulated by indecipherable jargon. I’m always heartened when I see writings that directly apply to how one might conduct one’s life.

However, secondly, I have to wonder why its valuable to “naturalize” Buddhism at all? If you remove the religious elements of Buddhism (reincarnation, etc.) is it still Buddhism or does it become something else? Is it then just a Buddhist flavored intellectual tradition? My concern would be that something will get lost in translation. I’ve studied for years at a Kung Fu school where there is a shrine to tutelary deities. I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to such things but I have no difficulty accepting bowing, lighting of incense and making offerings. I’m inclined to view these tutelary figures as Jungian archetypes of a sort and leave it at that. Its a matter of respect. There is a complete experience of the tradition that would be altered by their absence even if the martial skills that are the focus of study remain unaltered. To insist upon their removal to avoid “hocus-pocus” (Flanagan’s unfortunate and rather patronizing choice of words) seems oddly puritanical in a way.  I will be interested to see if Flanagan addresses this in his book and can give a good reason other than “religion is dumb”.

I think perhaps he should have stayed with extolling the virtues of Confucian and Aristotelian philosophy and left Buddhism alone. One of the reasons I was drawn back to the Greek tradition is that it doesn’t require a particular religion. Greek philosophy was a primary intellectual and, yes, spiritual source of Western life before the medieval church caused all sorts of interesting problems. That appeals to me as I am, for better or worse, an inveterate Westerner despite long interest in Eastern traditions. Your results may vary. I think anyone not religiously inclined could do far worse than to take Classical philosophy or Confucianism or Philosophical Taoism as a guideline for living.

Will any of them make you “happy”? Probably not but they may provide some satisfaction and contentment. I’ll take that any day.