At the beginning of this series of posts, I mention that many of the religions in the world overlap in a way that CS Lewis calls the Tao. In recent posts I tried to show what we all have a sense of this Tao, even if we don’t believe in God. I’ve also tried to show, by an extreme example, that no one actually means “there is no truth” even when they say it. My example was that (almost) everyone believes fascism is wrong. This means there is a universal truth, at least in the negative. And, by way of the positive, everyone claims to believe, “just be nice” even if there is no one to agree what “nice” is. This appeal to some sense of universal truth means something.
If there is no universal order, no sense of right and wrong then fascism is no better or worse than democracy. There is no reason to insist on saving lives, no reason at all to imagine that President Trump and President Obama are anything other than equally valid options on a spectrum between nothing and nowhere. There is no reason to imagine anything other than personal taste decides things from moment to moment. And so what if “a majority voted on this”? I say it’s codswallop and I will shoot the first person who dares ay me nay. That’s the meaning of “there is no right or wrong” and “there is no universal truth”. If the Tao does not exist then even the words on this page are meaningless.
But no one believes that: for most folks, in many situations, actually like to believe they are making “right” choices. While there’s a whole culture of people who imagine that even being told they are using the wrong grammar is oppressive, they still believe fascism is wrong, too. In fact, they wear pink hats and riot in churches to prove their point.
The next step is a bit harder. Dare you explore the Tao to see what all is there? This is truly the tough part. All these overlapping religions agree – each in their own terms, mind you – with what Christians call the Ten Commandments, the Seven Virtues, and the Seven Deadly Sins. In fact, for most of human history, nearly everyone agreed on these points regardless of the religion or culture.
While each religious and philosophical system has its own theology or polytheology, all teach we are to honor the divine: even the so-called “nontheistic” paths. All religions have special days. All have taboo names, words, and foods. All teach honor for parents, fidelity to spouses, and a surprisingly-uniform sexual morality around the world. Almost all forbid murder but allow some prosecution of the necessary evil of war. All of them recognize the evil of consumption (covetousness) and greed.
Some points were not commonly held: abortion, for example, was ok in some religions: roman paganism let a father order the destruction of his child even after birth and the child would be left on a hillside to die in the chill. The same pater familias could order elderly out of his house and leave them on the same hillside. Marriage was nearly always a financial and religious issue. The idea of “romantic love” is a relatively recent invention. Romance has never played into any conception of social responsibility until the modern era. Same-sex activity was most often confined to either a recreational aside (assuming you had done your cultural duty of making babies) or else used as a military tool – a way to show your enemies who was boss. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were accepted in some cultures but forbidden in others. Magic formed the body of sexual ethics in some cultures, sometimes only among a certain class. Judaism and Christianity and later Islam would disagree with this strongly.
All religions agree on the moral goodness of charity – although they differ on how to work this out. Hospitality (to even the stranger and outsider) was a sacred obligation in almost every culture.
Modern and Post-modern humanity stands athwart nearly all of our ancestors in tossing this tradition aside: not piecemeal but in toto. We reject all conception of a religious tradition. Most, even those who claim to be religious including this author, tackle all of this on a point by point basis, opting to go a la carte along the moral spectrum. Where our ancestors would have seen total chaos we see freedom.
This is our culture, our mindset. We may not be entirely nihilistic but we are nearly always a la cart. Even the staunchly non-religious find they have not rejected religion whole-cloth, for they too like charity and “peace on earth” even when there’s no scientific reason for it.
The argument of this series may fail if the reader does not allow herself to see how point (A) that fascism is universally wrong implies a total pattern leading to point (B). Therefore, other things may be universally wrong as well. And, furthermore, (C) that somethings may be universally right. For us, the possibility of acknowledging a universal is new, unheard of. We happily accept illogic, weak arguments, and emotional appeals to fallacy. We generally like to consider each point: A is true, yet I do not like B, but C could be useful in the future.
So there are a couple of choices to make before proceeding.
I will acknowledge two things upfront: first, my own religion of Christianity says that following that “Tao” is not enough for happiness. There are some religions and philosophies that say the Tao is enough. I will also acknowledge that for some readers, no offer of “something else” will be enough to give up their current choices.
The first choice to make is over the right understanding of freedom. Is freedom properly understood as “I can do anything I want at any time I want”?
The American founders taught us that we had the right to “pursue happiness”. In fact, they say we have this right from God and it’s the duty of the state to protect that right. They are in agreement with ancient traditions here. All of the ancient cultures teach the purpose of such universal goods was “happiness” by which they did not mean a feeling but rather a mode of life. We tend to think of happiness as a feeling that comes and goes: we may even uproot our lives to move across a continent to “find ourselves”. We drop out of relationships when they become confining. We quit jobs when they are difficult. This process of continual change has not made us happy, it’s just made of wary of stability, fearful of boredom, and amazingly shallow as a people and wilfully childish as persons. We think to have the freedom of choosing from 18 different colors of Converse in the morning (or the latest iPhone) should make us happy. Most of our ancestors were amazingly happy without shoes (or iPhones). For the ancients, this a la cart culture would be chaos: not leading to happiness or human flourishing.
The Greek word that usually gets translated as “happiness” is eudaimonia, and like most translations from ancient languages, this can be misleading. The main trouble is that happiness (especially in modern America) is often conceived of as a subjective state of mind, as when one says one is happy when one is enjoying a cool beer on a hot day, or is out “having fun” with one’s friends. For Aristotle, however, happiness is a final end or goal that encompasses the totality of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations. It is more like the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being. For this reason, one cannot really make any pronouncements about whether one has lived a happy life until it is over, just as we would not say of a football game that it was a “great game” at halftime (indeed we know of many such games that turn out to be blowouts or duds). For the same reason we cannot say that children are happy, any more than we can say that an acorn is a tree, for the potential for a flourishing human life has not yet been realized. As Aristotle says, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a18)Source Retrieved on 11/29/2019
We tend to imagine it’s only “what I want now” rather than “what is my ultimate goal”. The closest things we formulate to serve as an “ultimate goal” are all versions of the old bumper sticker: He who dies with the most toys wins. And we have made toys of people, technology, sex lives, religious commitments, political actions, and of our selves. By freeing ourselves from religions we have discovered there are many other things that hinder our disordered understanding of freedom far more than religious structures: laws, political systems, institutional racism, sexism, the impinging of my neighbor. How do I choose between my freedom and yours? What if I desire to have sex with you and you do not share the same desire? At that point, consent begins to hinder my freedom and defend yours. How do we move to a place where I can be happy if I can’t do everything I want when I want?
For us, freedom means “no boundaries”. For the ancients, freedom means “pick your boundaries wisely without hindrance or opposition.” Every positive choice means that you are making a negative choice as well: I want this piece of cake, not that one. I want this job, not that one. I want to dedicate my self to this path, not that one. Traditional wisdom would say that by that act of self-limitation you are creating far more energy and the drive for success: ever try to boil water in a large pot with no lid? Water boils best in a closed pot because the energy is stored up. A river flows fastest when the banks are constrained. A wide river silts up, and can even be made to flow backward by other energies.
So, rather than failing over and over because we are trying to feel good rather than to be happy, our first step would be to realize that every action towards happiness is a limitation. We can reject that idea, but it means we never move: we stay in the large pot ad the water never boils; we stay in a slow river silting over and pushed about by the tides.
The next post will get us to the second choice we need to make before proceeding. But by reading forward, I will assume you’ve elected to be happy rather than to feel happy.