autobiography, Daniel Gilbert, Lucretius, Martha Nussbaum, New Testament, Pali suttas, Śāntideva
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.
Cory Hodge said:
First off Congratulations! I don’t get to see you guys enough in person, so I’ll say it here. :)
I see you talk a lot about the different aspect of like and following a Monk’s path. The question I have is this: You make such a difference in a good deal many aspects of Caitlin’s life. Is not the sacrifice of a higher calling to be something like that to another person worth it? I’m sure you have already come up with that answer because you are marrying her, but I wanted to point that out. :)
As for Death. Death is not something to be mourned. I believe Life is a journey, and death is just the end of that journey (and if you believe it) a beginning of another. Death may take you or the one you love away, but you still have the good time you shared.
I wanted to end this with a Wedding Blessing from an Unknown source, but I feel it fits:
May your home be filled with laughter and the warm embrace of a summer day.
May you find peacefulness and beauty, challenge, and satisfaction, humor and insight, healing and renewal, love and wisdom, as in a quiet heart.
May you always feel that what you have is enough.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks very much, Cory. You are very right that one can benefit others a lot through marriage. Śāntideva talks about a monk who marries a woman who’s fallen madly in love with him – breaking his monastic vows to have sex with her, and risking eons in the Buddhist hells as a result. Śāntideva thinks this is a great thing and praises the monk for it. But I have my worries about thinking in that way (especially for someone like me who’s an ordinary dude and not a lofty bodhisattva). No matter how much you can benefit somebody else by marrying them, you’d really better have your own reasons for doing it, or you’re going to resent them in the long run.
I don’t really believe that death is the beginning of another journey, which is one of the things that makes it so hard to deal with. I also think it is absolutely appropriate to mourn – the death of a beloved is such a great loss that trying to silence the mourning can only lead to repression. But I agree with you on the more general point: the pain of the death does not outweigh the joy of the life.
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elisa freschi said:
Congratulations! I hope this will be only be the beginning of a long series of happy days.
May I point to another aspect of your post? I’ve always been disturbed by the British (and, now I know, USA) habit of “proposing” to someone. First, I can’t see why one should wait for a proposal. If one starts going out with someone, I guess that future plans are a normal topic for discussion and I can’t figure out how one could avoid it until the proposal is made. Second, it looks like a relic from an older world, one in which women were always willing to marry and men were not, and proposing was a way to impress a woman and to show her how much you care for her (so much that you could even be ready to abandon your dear ‘freedom’). Does it still make sense, nowadays? Can it be the beginning of an “inter pares” relationship?
I have obviously nothing against the gift of a ring and this comment does not intend to blame you at all. I would just be curious to know your side of the story.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Elisa! I’m actually surprised to learn that the proposal is not an Italian custom – I had thought it was a pan-European thing, but I guess not.
You’re entirely right that it’s very silly for a decision like marriage to come out of the blue and be made on the spot. In practice, though, that’s typically not how it happens anymore, certainly not in my case. She had already let me know that she wanted to be married, and I’d let her know that I needed time to think about it. Once I made up my mind, it would certainly have been possible to just tell her one evening “okay, I’ve decided it’s what I want to do as well, let’s get married.” But she loves surprises, so I decided to be a good Confucian and go with the traditional rite: going to a favourite place of hers the two of us, getting down on my knee and offering her a beautiful ring. She loved it and we’ll always remember that day; I have no regrets about it at all. But I wouldn’t have done that if we’d never discussed the matter before.