Judging by the comments, many readers found my diagnosis-prognosis post to be dark and pessimistic. Going back to the post, it’s not hard to see why. I endorse there the dark view of our existing human problems shared by Augustine, Marx and the Pali suttas; and yet I don’t think any of their solutions work. The essay effectively ends with a rejection of hope. The logical conclusion to draw from the essay might seem to be “life sucks.”
The understandable reactions to the essay’s pessimism nevertheless surprised me. For as I wrote it, I felt light, happy, life-affirming. Why? Well, the first part is easy. Rejecting Marx’s form of hope, political hope, is something I found essential to living a happy life. Right now I’m quite excited about tomorrow’s Canadian election – where the socialist NDP, which I’ve long supported, seems poised for an unprecedented breakthrough. But it is as a spectator sport, the excitement of a Boston fan seeing the Red Sox on the cusp of winning the World Series, where one shrugs and gets on with life if one’s favoured team turns out to lose as it has so many times in the past. If my happiness were tied to a real hope that politics in Canada or the US were going to get significantly better – as it was in my teens – I would be setting myself up for crushing disappointment. No, I continue to endorse at least some form of the anti-politics that I learned from Buddhism: we cannot let our well-being be tied too closely to the external goods of politics, things we cannot control. It is best to free ourselves from political hopes and focus on our own virtues, which we can control. I feel so much better ever since I’ve given up hope.
But there’s a problem here. This move from the external to the internal, from what we can’t control to what we can, is characteristic of the Hellenistic Greek philosophers, the Stoics and Epicureans. But Augustine’s perceptive critique is directed squarely at these Hellenistics: we cannot actually be as good as we think we can. The Stoics move us from hope about politics to hope about virtue. But in Augustine’s diagnosis, that hope too is bound to disappoint. Our bad habits persist; we enlist reason in the name of self-improvement, but too often it turns into rationalization. More than that, even virtue can be a matter more of luck than of effort. This is the main theme of John Rawls’s early Christian writings, which I have been finding more interesting and thought-provoking than the later political theory that made Rawls famous. Our patient endurance or our honesty themselves arise as a result of the biological and social circumstances that made them possible. The clearest example may be the case of Phineas Gage, whose former virtues of self-discipline and respectfulness nearly disappeared after he suffered brain damage. (Such a line of reasoning does suggest a denial of free will which sits uncomfortably with Rawls’s and Augustine’s other Christian convictions, but never mind: I am not concerned with whether the claim is Christian but with whether it is true.) We cannot put our hopes in our virtue, but only in God.
Now this kind of hope seems to propose a greater problem, require a greater pessimism, than does Marx’s. If politics is a problem with no solution, then fine, withdraw from politics and focus on ourselves. But what if our own virtue is a problem with no solution? If we can’t really be all that good, as Augustine says, but his God does not exist and would not deserve worship even if he did? How can such a conclusion lead us to anything but darkness and misery?
Looking back on it, I think that Buddhists provide a helpful answer, and that – as Jim Wilton argued – I may have counted the Buddhist critique of hope out too quickly. And the reason has to do with an important debate within Buddhist tradition, one that I don’t think I’ve explored enough yet: the debate between sudden and gradual liberation.
In traditional Indian Buddhism, my graduate area of study, liberation from suffering is a long, slow, painstaking, gradual process. It doesn’t just take years; it takes millennia, as you work to improve yourself across multiple rebirths to become a perfected person, an arhat or bodhisattva. But in East Asia, and above all in the Ch’an/Zen tradition – to which Jim’s comments about kōans refer – liberation comes suddenly, is experienced in a single moment. I had long been skeptical of the sudden-awakening school. It sounds too much like the worst hippie clichés of Yavanayāna Buddhism, where you don’t actually have to do anything, you can just be yourself as you are and you’ll be perfectly enlightened. It seemed to get you out of all the hard work of making yourself a better person.
And yet in contexts like the present one, I come to see the wisdom in the sudden-liberation approach. For one thing, it makes it a lot easier to take the unscientific concept of rebirth out of the picture. But more importantly, it reflects a psychological truth about the achievement of happiness: that as long as one’s attention is focused primarily on happiness, one will not have it. The same is true of several virtues: if one strives to be an exemplar of perfect humility, one will not be very humble. The sleep study noted by James Maas, demonstrating that it’s harder to fall asleep when you’re trying to do so, seems to me like it can be analogically extended to a lot of noble human goals. At some point along the path, you have to stop trying and just be.
All this, I think, is why Jim effectively defended my earlier characterization of Buddhism as a critique of hope, and rejected my later presentation of the Third Noble Truth as a form of hope, the hope of nirvana. At some point along the path, a good Buddhist stops hoping; as long as there’s hope, there’s attachment and not liberation.
And I think that Jim – with the East Asian Buddhist traditions – thereby puts his finger on the reason I felt so happy after that pessimistic post, better than I had myself. The last sentence of the post struck me as upbeat then and still does: “All we can do is keep stumbling through the evils of life – we can pursue the difficult, but worthy and surmountable, task of finding enough joy, truth and interest in life to make it well worth living.” What I was trying to get at is a transition from the future to the present – an ability to enjoy life and be good just as things are, even in the face of one’s own insurmountable imperfections.
To say that is to risk the very pitfall that made me so suspicious of sudden liberation in the first place: thinking that one is already great just as one is and doesn’t need any improving, leaving one’s weaknesses and problems to fester. But then it seems to me that finding this balance is its own kind of virtue – and like any other virtue, it is a mean between two vices. I don’t know what to call it, but it seems like a sort of meta-virtue: the ability to maintain the effort at cultivating one’s own virtue, while still remaining immersed in the moment of the virtues one already has.