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In thinking further about Seth Segall’s The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom and Pluralism, I want to turn from reviewing the book itself, whose broad approach I generally agree with, to exploring my major points of philosophical difference with it. I think this is a particularly important approach here because the book’s biggest weakness is its refusal to go down to deep philosophical differences, differences in questions of ultimate value, meaning, truth, reality. Such an approach leaves Seth in no position to understand his political opponents, many of whom are going to be conservative Christians (in the US) or conservative Muslims (worldwide). I don’t think you can reach a full mutual understanding with them unless you understand their differences from you at this very deep, foundational level.

For when we look at Seth’s engagement with monotheistic thought – the thought that underlies those conservative Christian or Muslim views – it turns out to be unfortunately superficial. They get their most extensive treatment on pp 133-7, in which the wide range of thinkers quoted includes Francis of Assisi, Rabbi Hillel and Albert Schweitzer. But notice how the section characterizes the work done by its quotations:

This necessarily brief survey of Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Ogalala Lakota, Ubuntu, and contemporary humanist traditions illustrates how all (or almost all) axial and post-axial religions and humanisms—be they Western, Asian, African, or Native American—provide us with moral resources to help make the transition from an unadulterated individualism or loyalty to a small in-group to a wider identification as an integral member of a broader human community and perhaps even to all life. (137)

The role played by the traditions here is not the role of partners in mutual understanding. Rather, they are a source of resources, tools to be used to further an existing project whose aims had already been decided in advance. I’m in favour drawing creatively on the resources of other traditions to build one’s own – what Augustine would call spoiling the Egyptians – but it is not the same thing as listening for mutual understanding. To do that, you have to go deeper.

Seth’s neglect of fundamental difference isn’t just with his monotheistic foes. It also characterizes his approach to the three traditions—Aristotelian, Buddhist, and Confucian—from which he draws his account of virtue. He phrases his approach as follows:

Let’s begin by outlining some of the prominent features of three classical ethical systems that arose separately from each other due to their geographical separation—the Aristotelean, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions—to see if we can discover commonalties [sic] that override their readily apparent differences. (31)

There is an assumption here, made but not justified, that commonalities “override” differences. But I don’t think there’s any reason to take the commonalities as overriding. One can always find some sorts of commonalities between any small group of phenomena. Aristotle, Śāntideva, and Zhuangzi all have in common the fact that the English spellings of their names contain the letter A. That doesn’t make that commonality significant, let alone overriding.

And when one is not clear about one’s principles for selecting commonalities, those commonalities may in fact turn out to be less significant. Seth attempts to find commonalities between Aristotle and the Buddhist texts – but not between the Buddhists and the Stoics. Strikingly, Seth dismisses the view of the Stoics, according to which “virtue and wisdom are all one needs to flourish”, as “facile” (34). The problem for him is that the conception of flourishing in classical Buddhism, whether in the self-oriented Pali texts or the other-oriented Śāntideva, is much closer to that Stoic view than it is to Aristotle’s; they, like the Stoics, dismiss the external goods that Aristotle values. Their single goal is the removal of suffering (dukkha), and the thing that gets us there is virtue.

Thus Seth quotes Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra and the Dhammapāda, but says nothing about how these texts take the highest lifestyle to be that of a monk. The Buddha’s monastic and other-worldly vision of a well-being liberated from the “fetters” of relationships was very different from Aristotle’s and Confucius’s view of a well-being embedded in social and political relationships.

Because of that difference, many of what Seth takes to be similarities are not. He quotes the Upaḍḍha Sutta in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, where the Buddha says:

This is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu [monk] has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.

Seth compares this to Aristotle’s view that “without friends no one would choose to live”. But what he doesn’t mention is that the term “good friend” in classical Buddhist texts is typically used in a very specific way: it refers to one’s guru, a person more advanced on the Buddhist path into whom one can put one’s trust, not an equal companion. (See chapters II and III of Śāntideva’s Śikṣā Samuccaya.) Accordingly what’s left of the supposed similarity is merely the bare word “friendship” and its synonyms, with no attention to the fact that what is meant is something very different.

Washing a monk’s feet: a sign of respect for the spiritual teacher. Free public domain CC0 image. More: View public domain image source here

Now this concept of friendship and relationship is something I think the Buddha and Śāntideva are wrong about, probably even in a monastic context and maybe even outside of it. (Just as the Buddha is wrong in the Kamboja Sutta.) My point is exegetical rather than constructive: that is, I’m pointing to what the classical texts actually say, not articulating my own view. I don’t agree with the hierarchical view of friendship; I think we do do better when friendship is mutual and interdependent, probably even if we’re monks. Constructively, I am with Seth rather than the suttas (just as I’m with Justin Whitaker that it’s good to go to the theatre).

So what is the point of making this exegetical argument about the text’s view? It is this: there is value in being challenged by texts we don’t agree with. We learn something from the views we disagree with. The things I learned most from Buddhism were all things I disagreed with at first – and in many ways that’s to be expected. When we already agree with something, there’s a lot less there for us to learn, for we have already learned a good chunk of it. That is one of the reasons I am drawn to Seth’s plea for mutual listening in general, even as I find the book living up to it less in practice: mutual listening doesn’t just help us live in peace, it helps us learn.