I’ll begin with happy news: I’m engaged! This weekend I proposed to my beloved Caitlin, and I’m delighted to say she accepted.
Now, I’ve tried to be explicit that this is a philosophy blog, not a personal blog – while a great deal here is autobiographical, the purpose of even those entries is to point to bigger questions, questions that I hope my life story can help illuminate in some way. So I’m going to talk today a little bit about my reasons for deciding to marry. The particular reasons, of course, are all about my sweetheart herself, a beautiful, smart, funny, playful, charming, sexy, adventurous, responsible, virtuous woman. But there are more general reasons that tie to the blog’s bigger concerns.
Above all, my action this weekend is not one that Śāntideva, or the Buddha of the Pali suttas, would view as a part of the highest, best, most fully virtuous life. They speak at length of the disadvantages of the household life, the life spent among family with a paid job in the everyday world. The life of a monk is a higher and better one to pursue. Eros keeps us mired in the suffering of everyday life, enslaved to the desires and craving that only cause us yet more suffering. The monk, by contrast, devotes himself or herself fully to the development of virtue, much more able to rise above craving and suffering.
Of course Indian Buddhists made room for householders – they’re the ones who kept the monks fed and clothed. But the classical Indian renouncer traditions, Jainism and Buddhism above all, make it very clear that the householder’s path is a lesser one, a path for those who are not as well developed. It may well be best for certain people – probably most people – to choose a householder’s life, but that’s because those people are weak, their bad karma too strong. There are echoes here of Paul in the New Testament saying “better to marry than to burn” (meaning “burn with lust,” not “burn in hell”). On the logic of classical Indian Buddhism, if marriage is the best path for me, it’s because I’m weak and unvirtuous, not good enough.
Now I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of my weaknesses. It’s not the characterization of myself as weak and unvirtuous that I object to; I can see a lot of that in myself, which is one reason I see such appeal in chastened intellectualism. Nevertheless, I do ultimately disagree that the monk’s life is the best life a human being can aspire to. Don’t get me wrong, I have an enormous degree of respect for monks. Overall, I suspect most lifetime monks are better off and more virtuous than the rest of us – they spend so much time cultivating themselves that they can be far less wrapped up in self-destructive behaviour than most. And yet, I do think that ultimately, the best, most fully human life is one that partakes of the pleasures of love and friendship, probably even of sensual pleasures like food and sex – while still being aware of the dangers of excessive attachment to them. Ultimately, on the question of external goods, I do end up closer to Martha Nussbaum’s worldly view than to Śāntideva’s. I have defended Śāntideva against Nussbaum many times, in my dissertation and elsewhere, and will continue to do so, because I think his side of the story doesn’t get nearly enough of a hearing; it’s worth listening to and there is a lot to learn from it. But in the end, I do not stand with him.
I first heard of monks and renouncers when I was quite young, visiting India with family, and I heard the explanation that people would follow this hard path to free themselves from sorrow. I expressed then what was probably my first real philosophical thought: “But if you free yourself from sorrow, you also free yourself from joy!” And this, to me, is a real problem. The classical Buddhist texts would say that even joy is itself sorrow – even sukha is dukkha – because joy comes to an end, because we inevitably lose the things we love, at death if not before. The inevitability of loss is indeed real, and terrible. But it is not clear to me that this loss must be so terrible. Does the pain of grief really outweigh the joys of togetherness? There is something to that idea – happiness researchers like Daniel Gilbert tell us we do lose more happiness from losses than we get from gains – but I don’t think it tells the whole story. Research in the same field also suggests that marriage (unlike childrearing) does do a lot to make you happy. And on death itself – so often emphasized in criticisms of material goods – the loss is itself not necessarily painful. Some of the wisest counsel on death comes from the Roman Epicurean Lucretius: true, when we die, we lose everything. But so what? We won’t be around to mourn the loss!
EDIT (1 November): My fiancée has asked me that her last name not be mentioned on this site, as she’s entering a critical phase of her career, and I post some fairly controversial opinions on the blog.