We think these days a lot about Buddhist ethics, which often involves some thought about Buddhist politics. We tend to think a lot less about Buddhist aesthetics.
Now there’s an obvious explanation that could be given for this: the Buddhist dhamma teaches that worldly pleasures mire us in suffering. So aesthetics, insofar as it deals with pleasurable phenomena like art, is something Buddhists should avoid. In response I give you this:
My undergraduate degree was in sociology and geography, with a focus on urban studies. That world often seems far away from the cross-cultural philosophy that drives me now – but not always.
Since “urban sociology” existed as a subfield and seemed to be the one I was trying to study, I once did a term-paper project asking the question: what is urban sociology? The answer I found most interesting and compelling was provided by the Australian sociologist Peter Saunders, in his Social Theory and the Urban Question. Continue reading
It was about five and a half years ago now that my dissertation on Śāntideva was approved and I could receive my PhD. Most doctoral graduates try very hard to turn their dissertations into a published or at least publishable book. I can say with some confidence that that will not happen.
There are two key reasons for this, and I’ll address the second next week. The first, which I will discuss here, is practical and political. I have removed myself from the meatgrinder that is the faculty job market, and that fact creates new possibilities for me. My dissertation has been available free online here to you the readers ever since Love of All Wisdom began. I sent a link to the blog to a friend and colleague of mine; as soon as he received it, he sent me a Google instant message full of shock: “You posted your entire dissertation! Aren’t you interested in publishing it as a book?” His surprise was understandable. What publisher would want to sell a book whose contents are available for free? By making my diss free and easily available, it would seem, I had just made it that much harder to get on the traditional path: get your diss published, get tenure. Continue reading
This post will be a little less philosophical, strictly speaking at least, than is usual here. Readers have found my autobiographical explorations interesting in the past, and I hope this will be similarly so.
I recently returned from India, to have a traditional Indian wedding ceremony. (I’ve been married for two and a half years, but my Indian friends and relatives could not attend that ceremony, nor did it have Indian gods presiding over it.) It’s an unfortunate irony that I have been able to get to India much less frequently ever since I started studying it. My previous trip was at the beginning of 2005; it had been eight years between that trip and the one I just returned from, whereas in my childhood the years between trips were no more than three. And I’m very glad to have had this trip, for it made quite a different impression on me from the previous ones. Continue reading
I’ve written a fair bit lately about conservatism, of both literal and innovative (reactionary) varieties. There is much I find admirable and valuable in conservative views; but I would be quite hard-pressed to say I agree with them. Certainly I do not live a life compatible with them, as I am frequently reminded when I read them. One of the reasons I have been drawn to these worldviews is precisely because they are so alien to me. I can see the consistency and power in these views, but my own temperament is typically far away from them. And that’s part of why I see them as such an important counterbalance.
A few months ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is particularly given to pithy epigrams. We were discussing the Stata Center: a brightly colourful building on the MIT campus, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which is designed deliberately to look chaotic, unfinished, random. It’s not a building that leaves many people feeling neutral. My friend disliked its artifice, disjoint from the things around it. I said I thought it would be terribly inappropriate in the middle of a historic neighbourhood, but that it’s just right for a school like MIT, so focused on progress and the future. She didn’t think it was appropriate anywhere, and added: “Frank Gehry hates the real world.”
I’ve been thinking about that quote while reading articles by Patrick Deneen and others at Front Porch Republic, who would probably agree with my friend about Gehry’s architecture (though not about much else). Continue reading
Last week I spoke of a philosophical single-mindedness shared by modernists, evangelical Protestants, Salafi Muslims and St. Augustine, and this week I’d like to reflect on it further. What these various single-minded thinkers hold in common is opposed above all, I think, by literal conservatism. Conservatives in the literal sense seek to preserve much of the world as it is – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They are opposed to radical breaks and revolutions, whether those aim to take us forward (as the modernists) or backward (as the Salafis). I noted in my earlier post that Jane Jacobs’s urban criticism, a direct attack on modernist architecture and modernist urban planning, is a quintessential example of literal conservatism; Jacobs would react with the same hostility to the Salafi assault on Mecca. In that respect, for all its urbanity, Jacobs’s work is of a piece with the agrarian rural conservatism of Front Porch Republic and Wendell Berry.
The appeal of such literal conservatism is certainly not limited to aesthetics, but one may perhaps see it most clearly in the aesthetic realm. (Some modernists, like the Marxist geographer David Harvey, see an aesthetic conservatism as opposed to a more ethical modernism.) For it’s hard to imagine elevating a single most important principle, as modernists typically do, as the principle behind beauty: could one ever say “Everything constructed according to principle X will be beautiful,” without making principle X entirely vacuous and devoid of content? Aesthetics seem to require a focus on the details and not merely the big picture.
Now of the various single-minded thinkers I’ve mentioned so far – modernists, evangelicals, Salafis and Augustine – one might note that they all have their historical roots in Western traditions. Continue reading
One of the most common slams made against modernist (Yavanayāna) Buddhism is that it is “Protestant.” I’ve previously written about how there’s more to Buddhist modernism than this, and about the curious quasi-theological assumption that having Protestant influence is seen as a bad thing. At the same time, I’ve been realizing that there are close links between Protestantism and modernism. Not too surprising, perhaps, since the two emerge out of the same historical context, the Europe of the past 500 years – but I think their similarities may go deeper than that. Continue reading
A month or so ago I started reading Julia Annas‘s excellent The Morality of Happiness – while visiting family in New York City. Because of the New York setting, I was particularly drawn to this passage:
It is also not surprising that ancient ethics, with one marginal exception, never develops anything like the related consequentialist idea of a maximizing model of rationality. If my ethical aim is to produce a good, or the best, state of affairs, then it is only rational to produce as much as possible of it. But ancient ethics does not aim at the production of good states of affairs, and so is not tempted to think that rationality should take the form of maximizing them. Rather, what I aim at is my living in a certain way, my making the best use of goods, and acting in some ways rather than others. None of these things can sensibly be maximized by the agent. Why would I want to maximize my acting courageously, for example? I aim at acting courageously when it is required. I have no need, normally, to produce as many dangerous situations as possible, in order to act bravely in them.