Reinterpreting the Sigālovāda’s prohibition on theatre

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I was delighted to see Justin Whitaker responding to my post on the Sigālovāda Sutta – both in a comment and in a separate post of his own. Justin and I first found each other long ago over our shared interest in Pali Buddhist ethics, and he was one of my more frequent interlocutors in the early days of Love of All Wisdom, so it’s great to see him back around. I recall Justin citing the Sigālovāda favourably several times in earlier conversations, so perhaps it’s not surprising that my broadside against it is what brought him out of the woodwork!

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On courage

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Courage figures prominently in many lists of the virtues. It is a key example for Aristotle of how virtue is a mean: the courageous person is neither cowardly nor rash, but finds an appropriate middle ground. It is among the three key virtues summed up by the Serenity Prayer, in nearly all of its versions. Yet in the 21st century we can be a little suspicious of it. A blogger called the Sober Heretic thinks the Serenity Prayer is wrong to emphasize courage:

The fact that I need courage to change says a lot about what the prayer thinks change is. What does a person normally need courage for? Marching into battle. Jumping out of an airplane. Giving a speech. Facing a life-threatening disease. Courage is necessary when you’re fighting something: an enemy soldier, a virulent pathogen, your own fear. The need for courage says that change is fundamentally combative.

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On traditional wisdom and qualitative individualism

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David Meskill asked an important question in response to my coming out as gender-fluid. He asks:

I’m curious about how your personal transformation might relate to your interest in traditional wisdom. Has it affected your views of tradition? Have those views informed your transformation in any way?

I said a bit in response to his comment (and in the previous post itself), but I’d like to expand on it here. (David is correct in thinking I have addressed the question somewhat in earlier posts; I will link to many of those here in this post.) As I noted in the previous post, my conviction that gender identity does not have to correspond to biological sex is deeply informed by qualitative individualism, which is a largely modern movement, though (like nearly every modern movement) it is one with premodern roots. But I do think it’s important to understand our philosophies historically and even understand ourselves as belonging rationally to a tradition, and I think there is a great deal to be found in premodern traditions that is lacking in more modern ones (such as Marxism). I am willing to characterize my relationship to Buddhism, especially, as one of faith. So how does all of this fit together?

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In which I come out

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The liberation of women from traditional subservient gender roles has been the crowning achievement of the 20th century. That process of liberation is not complete, and will likely not be for some time. As it proceeds, it can take on unexpected consequences and connotations.

In particular, it turns out that the complete eradication of gender is something relatively few people ever wanted, even in those societies where feminism has gone furthest. Early feminists like Beauvoir understandably attacked the ways in which social understandings of womanhood kept women in a subservient position. For Beauvoir, gender roles interfered with women’s expression of their authentic selves.

Yet as women’s social position has improved over the decades since Beauvoir (and I don’t think there’s much debate that it has improved), gender has not withered away, or even begun to. Rather, it turns out that – on the same grounds of authentic self-expression that animate Beauvoir – many of us now welcome more signifiers of gender than we have to. That is: the past decade has seen an explosion in transgender expression, in which one comes to believe that one’s authentic self is essentially a particular gender – just not the one that had been assigned according to sex organs. And one then often goes through great lengths in order to have the various signifiers of that gender – and sometimes even the associated organs themselves. Feminists and psychologists had long noted a distinction between sex as a biological category and gender as a social construct overlying that category. It turns out that for many, the result of that distinction was not to eradicate gender, but to embrace a gender identity that does not correspond to one’s biological sex.

I say all of this as a preface to a more personal announcement: I consider myself gender-fluid, and have done so for nearly three years now.

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The Buddhist oxygen mask

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If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your oxygen mask on first, and then assist the other person.

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline has heard this instruction; anyone who flies frequently has heard it so often that it becomes background noise, though relatively few of us have ever had the chance to put it into practice. If the plane cabin depressurizes and the oxygen masks drop, one has only seconds before running out of oxygen oneself; if one tries to put the oxygen mask on a child first, hypoxia may inhibit one’s ability to put the mask on the child correctly, to say nothing of the risk to oneself. One can best save both people by attending to oneself first – running against any parent’s natural instinct to protect his own child.

I’m not the first to see this advice as a metaphor for other forms of ethical conduct in relationships: “the oxygen-mask principle”. Often we can take care of others most effectively by taking care of ourselves. What I also see, though, is that this principle is deeply Buddhist.

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The Sigālovāda’s vicious mean

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The Sigālovāda Sutta might be my least favourite sutta in the Pali Canon.

There is relatively little that the Pali texts say on “ethics” in a modern Western sense of interpersonal action-guiding; much of the specific instructions on action are found in vinaya, legal texts for the conduct of monks. The Sigālovāda is relatively unusual in providing guidance for action to lay householders. For that reason, a number of secondary writers on Buddhist ethics regard it as as a valuable guide for Buddhist ethical conduct.

I do not.

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Among the MacIntyreans

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I’ve had the good fortune in the past couple years to attend multiple events held by the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry (ISME). (To answer the question that is most often asked when I first mention the ISME: yes, it exists!) The 2020 and 2021 events (the second of these happening last week) were virtual, for the unfortunate reasons of the COVID pandemic, but that virtual status did give me the ability to attend. Previously in summer 2019 I had a wonderful time at a conference called To What End?, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. It was only unofficially the annual ISME conference, held in honour of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 90th birthday: unofficially on both counts, apparently because the guest of honour did not want to attend a conference named after himself.

Attend he did, and it was my first (it could well be my only) chance to see MacIntyre in the flesh. But perhaps the more interesting phenomenon was to be in several rooms full of MacIntyreans. (And to find out that apparently others pronounce it “mac-in-TEE-ree-an” rather than the more obvious “mac-in-TIE-ree-an”.) It was a lovely opportunity to think and discuss more about the living thinker I have probably learned most from in my lifetime. And, perhaps, to observe the sociology of my fellow admirers of him: something MacIntyre would likely approve of, since his philosophy has always had a sociological bent.

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Should undergraduate classics require Latin and Greek?

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The discipline of classics has made headlines recently with Princeton University’s decision to no longer require majors to take Greek or Latin. This is a fairly momentous decision: aren’t Greek and Latin what Classics is all about?

I have mixed feelings about the decision. I think there is a lot of value in learning Greek and Latin. Certainly for philosophers: we need to understand philosophy’s history, and in our world that history is inescapably Western even for those of us who do not focus on it. I am broadly Aristotelian and wish I knew more Greek to understand him better. As for Latin, it remains important for lawyers and biologists, and knowing the very many Latin roots of English words gives us a much deeper understanding of those words’ meaning. A world where even fewer people know Greek or Latin does not seem to me a good thing, overall.

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Frustration where mind meets world

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I find myself repeatedly returning to the question I asked earlier this year: “Is the problem in our heads?” That is: for Buddhists, especially classical ones, is the fundamental human problem located in our minds, or in the world? I have found that my thinking on this question has already changed even just since my posts on the topic last month.

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The courage to change the things we can

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The Serenity Prayer, it turns out, has multiple versions. On the Alcoholics Anonymous website you’ll find the version I quoted before, though the site adds that the first person is often pluralized, “I” to “we”:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

However, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton in her memoir gives us a different version. She says that Niebuhr’s original version of the prayer was composed in 1943, was first preached by him in a Sunday sermon that year in Heath, Massachusetts, and looked like this:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

As Sifton notes on pp292-3, there are at least two major differences between these two versions. The first refers to grace and the second does not; the first refers to changing what I or we can change, the second to what should be changed. Sifton prefers the second; she says that AA “simplified” the text and her father “minded” the change but did not object.

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